Published Saturday
October 2, 2004

Review: Modest staging enhances drama of Weill




Less has rarely been more clever than in Opera Omaha's new production of Kurt Weill's political satire, "The Threepenny Opera."

The stage is tiny for an Opera Omaha production, and the house only seats 350. Props are minimal and the set is, well, resourceful.

The Threepenny Opera
What: New Opera Omaha production of Kurt Weill's 1928 political satire

When: 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Oct. 9; 2 p.m. Oct. 10

Where: Lied Education Center for the Arts, 24th and Cass Streets at Creighton University

Tickets: $35

Information: 346-7372 or go to

But such a modest, bare-bones approach turns out to be tremendously effective in telling a story about a bunch of dodgy have-nots from Victorian London. The local company's production opened Friday at Creighton University's Lied Education Center for the Arts. It will be performed five more times through Oct. 10.

First performed in 1928, "The Threepenny Opera" is perhaps most popular for its well-known song "Mack the Knife," which is sung by a street singer during the prologue. The story centers around Macheath (aka Mack the Knife), a notorious womanizer and thief who can't be trusted. The storyline chronicles his descent to the gallows as his mischievous lifestyle catches up with him.

Underneath the dark, ostentatious comedy and catchy melodies is more serious commentary. The piece was originally written by Bertolt Brecht and Weill in 1928 as a satire on the bad social and economic conditions of 1920s Berlin. The piece comments on war, business scandals and robber barons. Opera Omaha keeps with this tradition by adding a bit of its own commentary at the end (hint: watch for pictures of controversial corporate executives rolled out on a large kiosk).

One of this production's most captivating assets, however, is the effective use of a neutral space. No unit sets or large backdrops are used. Instead, scenic artist Peter Harrison uses four movable scaffolds to dictate the shape of each scene. Smaller props such as hay bales and candles are actually brought on stage by the actors in the midst of the action.

Though the production's artifacts may be minimal, this doesn't take away from the cast's ability to deliver the drama. As Macheath, William Michals is devastatingly charming, quick with his tongue and his tricks. Alicia Berneche plays a naive, idealistic Polly Peachum whose love for Macheath muddles her good sense. And Jill Anderson is seductive and deceitful as the conniving prostitute Jenny Diver. A small pit orchestra, led by Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France, accentuated the spirit of the cabaret-like play with a tempered performance of Weill's catchy score.

The performances were enhanced by the fact that audience members were able to see the actors' subtle gestures, and in some cases hear their breath, because of the intimate size of the theater. The only major drawback in this space is the restricted view from the balcony.

All of these elements played into the production's less-is-more strategy, which ultimately gave more immediacy than ever to the message.