PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Threepenny Opera: Hell and Dale

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Threepenny Opera: Hell and Dale
 
Oh, the shark doesn’t have pretty teeth, dear—not in the new rewrite Wallace Shawn has given The Threepenny Opera, which got a Roundabout revival April 20 at Studio 54—but the primal pull of Kurt Weill’s “Mac the Knife” can still cut compellingly to the heart.
From Top: Nellie McKay; Scott Elliott; Wallace Shawn; Aszure Barton; Isaac Mizrahi; Kate Reinders; Josh Hamilton; Rena Gill Brecht; Malcolm Gets; Tovah Feldshuh; Walter Bobbie.
From Top: Nellie McKay; Scott Elliott; Wallace Shawn; Aszure Barton; Isaac Mizrahi; Kate Reinders; Josh Hamilton; Rena Gill Brecht; Malcolm Gets; Tovah Feldshuh; Walter Bobbie. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

As rendered with hypnotic nasality by Cyndi Lauper, you feel yourself sinking under its spell. Indeed, while she sings, 18 of her co-stars—gussied up as the roughest customers imaginable—shuffles forth zombie-like to join her at the lip of the stage, as if beckoned by some old black (very! ) magic. They’re there to welcome Ol’ Mackie back in town—and viola! out of the audience and onto the stage he bounds: Alan Cumming in a mohawk.

You meet these grotesques the minute you entered the theatre, decked out in white makeup, black nail polish and various degrees of grunge, goth and punk. They are the ghoulish greeting committee merrily welcoming you to hell. At first you think you’ve entered the land of the living dead, then you think they’ve opened the catacombs below Studio 54 and all the druggie low-lifes and human flotsam have risen to street level.

In fact, this is the first time since Cumming emceed Cabaret there that this theatre, lost to legitimacy in recent years, has recaptured the disreputable rep it wore like a badge in the ‘70s as Gotham’s temple of sin and sexcess. That the play is presented at Studio 54 has everything to do with how Scott Elliott directed it and Isaac Mizrahi designed it.

“I tried to come up with a contemporary version of Threepenny Opera that would be at Studio 54,” Elliott admitted. “I tried to take all that into account in the way we were doing it. Tiger Brown [Christopher Innvar] flying in on a horse at the end of the show is kinda like Bianca Jagger or Jerry Hall coming into Studio 54 like Lady Godiva on a horse. I feel I was able to do something different, like I put myself out there and exposed myself.

“It was an amazing experience and actually touching and very moving, getting some of the most incredible artists that I know together and making something memorable. How often does that happen on Broadway? I liken it to climbing Mount Everest. It was intimidating. I know some people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it. But I think that’s the history of The Threepenny Opera. And when has anybody ever loved The Threepenny Opera? The critics usually hate it or they think they know what Brecht wanted. A lot of people think they know exactly the meaning of Brecht, but the beautiful thing about Brecht is that he has given The Threepenny Opera to the world for interpretation. I’ve done a lot of reading of Brecht, and I almost feel it was okay for me to do my thing with it because he would have wanted it that way. He directed it first.” Elliott’s acting company, The New Group, commissioned Shawn to do a new translation of the show that would speak to contemporary audience. One of the things Shawn did was to put the show on the sexual fast-track, as per Elliott’s orders. “I think there are allusions to Mac the Knife’s relationship to Tiger Brown, and I wanted to make it like two people today. I wanted a bisexual reading to that relationship. I thought, with Alan Cumming, it would be false if he was just a womanizer, so I thought it would be really interesting to explore the life of an omnisexual person.”

So, in the this version, Mackie buzzes among three flowers, all played by Broadway newcomers: Nellie McKay as Polly Peachum, who elopes with him much to the chagrin of her merchant parents (Jim Dale and Ana Gasteyer), Jenny the whore (Lauper) and Tiger Brown’s offspring, Lucy (Brian Charles Rooney). It’s a very full and varied plate.

“Lucy is not a drag queen,” Rooney was quick to point out. “Do you want to know the little backstory we created? He uses his androgyny to take advantage of people. Mac sees him as a girl so that’s what he does. When someone sees him as a guy, he does that.”

Rooney stumbled into his Broadway debut by showing up at an open call. “They needed a guy who could be convincing male or female and could sing tenor and male soprano—a tall order. I didn’t know anybody else who could do that so I went to the audition.”

Lauper has been listing toward Broadway for some time and, it has been reported, did a terrific Mrs. Lovett in a workshop here, but the role went to Patti LuPone. The good news is that it got her name out there, and, when Edie Falco fell out of Threepenny, Lauper fell in. She confessed she found her Broadway bow to be fun, and some girls just want to have fun. “I feel very happy to be with these people. They’re wonderful. Every single player on that stage is fantastic. What a lucky dog I am to be in a cast like this!”

McKay admitted to a good time as well and was grateful “to get the shot from Scott.” That surprised her more than landing the job. “He saw a really bad performance of mine and he asked me to audition anyway.” But she was not blown away by a Broadway debut. “It’s really not that different than playing The Duplex when you come right down to it.”

There’s an asterisk on Gasteyer’s debut here. She replaced Joan Jett in The Rocky Horror Show a few years ago, “but this is my first time originating a role for Broadway.” She found it an oddly calming experience: “At Roundabout it’s a very laissez faire process. You have a really long rehearsal period and a really long preview period. It’s partially agonizing but really fulfilling too, because you slowly, slowly, slowly make it better.”

From the unlikely (and decidedly unsympathetic) position of Mr. Peachum, Jim Dale gives a luminous turn, swiping the show and tossing it in his pocket. His loose-limbed dance to “The Song of Inadequacy of Human Striving” had a magic music-hall spin to it not of this time.

“When I was nine, I took ballroom dancing, tap dancing, natural dancing and eccentric comedy dancing,” he said. “The steps I did tonight were from my teacher. He was 45 then, and his grandfather had taught him. Somebody must have taught his grandfather because those steps have been around since 1800. It must have originated in the old drinking salons when they pushed the people out of the way and somebody started a funny dance.

Matthew Bourne, who choreographed Swan Lake and the Oliver! I did in London, said to me, ‘These steps should be preserved. Let’s arrange a meeting so that we can videotape them.’ So we are. You gotta pass everything on. Let someone else steal it so it’ll go on.”

Dale’s wife, Julie, confessed that she cried seeing him go into his dance. And it is a sight for sore and jaded eyes, to see Scapino and Barnum strut his stuff—at the age of 71.

This is Mizrahi’s third brush with Broadway—The Woman and Barefoot in the Park were also for Elliott (“We collaborate very well. I trust him. I listen to him, and he is no coward”)—but he is open to other directors and other mediums. In fact, “I’m actually starting fittings Monday for an opera I’m doing in London—Henry Purcell’s King Arthur, which will be directed and choreographed by Mark Morris for the English National Opera.”

The Threepenny Opera, he discovered, “was not so hard to conceive—and it ultimately was a pleasure working with all of these actors—but it sorta defies theatricality in a lot of ways to ask people to not look good, you know what I mean? It was really a very perverted thing for me, but it felt as if that was the right way to go for this show.” He contended this production was without a specified time period—“just a number of influences”—and designed accordingly. “In the original masterwork, it takes place in a certain time, but, when you read Wally’s translation of it, there are so many modern references and inferences. Then, when you see the casting and what Scott has done with the blocking and the dramatic intention of it, it can’t take place in any particular time.”

Paul Huntley, however, designed his 18 wigs in an ‘80s style. The star let him off the hook. “Alan rather designed it himself. When he came to rehearsal, he had a Mohawk so we continued, but of course we dyed it black. That’s his own hair, shaved at the side.” But Dale’s hair was gelled into a comparable Mohawk effect. The hardest wig was Lauper’s.

The Brecht in the house heartily approved of the show’s revival. Rena Gill Brecht, his daughter-in-law, was familiar with Shawn’s work, as was her husband Stefan, and “we were very happy when he decided he would like to translate Threepenny because we thought he might come through with something new and fresh. I think this really breaks out of the early conceptions of the show, and that’s a really good thing. It had to happen.”

Given the downtown (and lower) ambiance of the production, there was nowhere to head after the show but . . . downtown, to that cavernous black box on West 18th called Roxy.

For most first-nighters, it was their first trip back since Rosie O’Donnell’s to-do for Taboo. O’Donnell and Kelly Carpenter opted not to.

Those who did venture forth included John Stamos, Marylouise Burke (soon to be seen in the new Robert Altman movie, "A Prairie Home Companion"), Mario Cantone, heiress Lydia Hearst, Tovah Feldshuh, designer Cynthia Rowley, Josh Hamilton (back from India where he filmed "Outsource"), Terrence McNally, Defiance’s Chris Bauer (who’ll be in "Smith," the CBS series bowing this fall with Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen), Jane Alexander, The Times’ Campbell Robertson (from the late “Boldface” to the entertainment pages, replacing Jesse McKinley, who’ll be The Times’ man in San Francisco), Denis O’Hare, Paige Price (Texas-bound to do A Chorus Line—yup, “Tits ‘n’ Ass”), Roger Rees, lyricist David Zippel (working with director-choreographer Graciela Daniele toward a fall workshop of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pamela’s First Musical), F. Murray Abraham, Simon Jones (preparing Good Songs for Bad Times, or The Songs We Sang to See Us Through, a program of war-years and Depression songs that will be given free May 4 at 6 PM at the New York Public Library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium with Steve Ross, Anna Bergman, Brian Murray, Clea Blackhurst and Evan Stern), playwright Lynn Nottage, Carolyn McCormick, Stephen Flaherty, Kathleen Marshall, Walter Bobbie, Michael Grief and Michael Mayer, whose "Flicka" flick hits screens Oct. 20 and who is two weeks into rehearsing Spring Awakening for a June 18 opening at the Atlantic—spring, as they say, will be a little late this year.

From Left: Jim Dale, Ana Gasteyer, Cyndi Lauper and Alan Cumming.
From Left: Jim Dale, Ana Gasteyer, Cyndi Lauper and Alan Cumming. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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