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A Threepenny Gamble at the Conservatory of Music

December 7, 2018

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Music school is for reaching, taking risks, and testing those things out in public from time to time. Those principles played out in high relief when the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Musical Theatre Ensemble took on The Threepenny Opera.

Mounted in the school’s snug Sol Joseph Recital Hall for two performances (with some alternate casting), the scabrous 1928 Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill piece about capitalism, corruption, sex, crime, hypocrisy, and power tested the students’ theatrical and musical chops to the limit and then some. The best thing that can be said about the largely inert production is that it got better through the course of its two hour-and-45-minute running time.

One of the things about taking risks is that there’s no guarantee they will pay off. If they all did, they wouldn’t be risks.

Seen one way, Threepenny is a curious choice for music conservatory students. Performed here in the 1989 Michael Feingold translation, the libretto contains considerably more spoken than sung dialogue. Despite the word “Opera” in its title, the Brecht/Weill adaptation of John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera is predominantly a theater piece. The songs tend to be short and more than once abruptly truncated.

Right from the start, director Michael Mohammed’s cast struggled to find the style and caustic meter to deliver the goods. Outfitted in black-and-white costumes and sporting starkly exaggerated make-up, the performers sneered and snarled, sniveled and minced. But their mannered line readings did little to redeem the often-awkward stage business and collectively self-conscious demeanor. Even the lighting at Thursday’s opener was erratic.

Wilford Kelly made the first decisive impression as Jeremiah Joseph Peachum, the scam artist and exploiter of rich and poor alike. Kelly’s becalmed baritone drily limned his lines and an early number about the general lack of human sympathy. Mahsheed Massarat, (as Peachum’s wife) and McKaylee Todd (as their daughter and the story’s ostensible heroine, Polly Peachum) gave regrettably scattered performances that never came into very clear focus, dramatically or musically.

Nathanael Fleming played Macheath. His criminal allure and cynical poison came to a boil too slowly. But by the end, when the character’s misdeeds caught up with him before an eleventh-hour reprieve, this quintessential antihero had made his mark. Keaton Brown, a standout as the perpetually panic-stricken police chief Tiger Brown, brought out the best in Fleming. Their first-act duet was winning. So was the sly, seemingly sexual touch the chief laid on Macheath. No wonder the two were in bed with each other, so to speak.

Cristina Lanz showed some flair and musical vibrancy as Jenny, one of Macheath’s many other conquests. That was especially so in the deftly turned “Solomon Song.” Her tango with him was the sharpest bit of staging all night.

Music director Lauren Mayer, at the upright piano, led a six-person onstage band. The brasses supplied a little bite here and there, but the accompaniment was mild and self-effacing to a fault.  Casting four women as Macheath’s ballad-singer gang skewed the vocal timbres toward the higher, lighter end.

While this certainly wasn’t a Threepenny to cherish, the ensemble “finales” at the end of each act felt tonic. There, bunched in tightly with each other, the young artists seemed to gain strength in numbers. Creating music drama is always a communal act, with the results greater than the sum of individual efforts. That, even more than the dark morals Brecht and Weill hammer home at the end, may have been the most lasting message of the night.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.