Mack the Knife, he’s the original smooth criminal at the dark comic heart of “The Threepenny Opera,” a legendary piece of musical theater that’s getting a 21st century update next month at UCSD’s Conrad Prebys Music Center.
Adapted as a German version of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” a big hit in London in 1728, “Die Dreigroschenoper” (The Threepenny Opera) opened in a small theater in Berlin 200 years later, showcasing the unconventional talents and edgy style of poet/playwright/director Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. The cast of prostitutes, beggars, corrupt cops and wily crooks included Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya.
Despite the rise of Nazism, “The Threepenny Opera” was soon being seen throughout Europe, though its 1933 Broadway debut was less than stellar. Also in 1933, Brecht and Weill fled Hitler’s Germany for less-threatening locations. According to Wikipedia, the first theater performance in post-war Berlin of “Threepenny,” was a rough 1945 production staged in a ruined theater, with some of the actors authentically ragged and haggard, only recently released from concentration camps.
In all, “Threepenny” has been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times.
In 1954, a smart new adaptation by playwright/lyricist Marc Blitzstein opened off-Broadway. It won two Tonys, one for Lenya as Jenny and a special award for the show itself, which became, at that time, the longest-running musical in New York.
Now Grammy-winning soprano Susan Narucki, who joined UCSD’s music faculty in 2008, has re-visioned “Threepenny” for Kallisti, the vocal ensemble she founded so her graduate students could introduce audiences to extraordinary music for voice. Narucki once again teamed up with actor/director Ruff Yeager, who directed Kallisti’s last chamber opera production, the acclaimed “Cuatro Corridos,” in 2013.
Together with Michael Mizerany, known for his provocative choreography, they are staging a “Threepenny” for our times, set in Washington, D.C., two years in the future, during the furor surrounding the inauguration of the new president — a woman. They’re using the Blitzstein adaptation, but giving the piece an ultra-modern look, creating a world of social media, Tea Party evangelists, drug dealers, prostitutes of different sexes, and would-be profiteers of the contemporary kind.
“ ‘Threepenny Opera’ is really about the 99 percent and the 1 percent, corruption in government and politics, and the glamorization of criminals, so it’s completely relevant to today,” Narucki said. “And it has a special kind of dark humor, so you’re never quite sure about what’s happening: is this supposed to be funny, or not? We’re really testing the limits, not shying away from violence or sexuality. In that way we’re evocative of the Berlin cabaret scene in the late 1920s and early ‘30s.”
There are two distinct worlds in this production, staged in the Music Center’s small but versatile Experimental Theater. There’s the slick, Facebook world of self-created image, and the seedy, lower world of outsiders, ne’er-do-wells, and rabble-rousers. There are even two Mackies, one a dapper, smooth-talking urbanite, the other a chains-and-leather rock star. And Narucki and Yeager are playing the Peachums, a conniving couple who make a living by exploiting homeless people.
But the heart of the opera is the music, with an eight-piece ensemble providing the inimitable score. Expect something different in this “Threepenny Opera,” but don’t worry — you’ll still be able to hum along with Mack the Knife.