‘Threepenny Opera’ is a challenge

A scathing social satire, “The Threepenny Opera” is about Have-Nots in England at the time of Queen Victoria coronation. Bertolt Brecht’s cautionary 1928 tale has influenced theater around the globe ever since, and resonates acutely in 21st Century America.

To understand those parallels on social injustice today is director Scott Miller’s aim in presenting Marc Blitzstein’s American translation. He clearly hoping to be a clarion in a much needed wake-up call about complacency, Miller has staged it cleanly, aided by scenic designer Rob Lippert’s smart, precise gothic set and Kenneth Zinkl’s harsh lighting design.

A number of interpretations have been performed internationally, and this one is not without its detractors. However, if you are not familiar with other accounts, you have no comparison.

You do need to know why Brecht, and composer Kurt Weill, were compelled to rage against the machine.

“From political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational corporations,” Brecht said. A lifelong Marxist, he and Weill fled Hitler’s Germany in 1933.

Standing on its own, the New Line production flavors “The Threepenny Opera” with broad comedy and wields its pointed barbs very sharply. However, some of the cast members understand the motivation behind this critique of capitalism better than others.

New Line customarily features a tight ensemble, showcasing some of St. Louis’s shrewdest musical theater performers, while also debuting a few new artists. Their strong voices tackle the masterful jazzy score under Jeffrey Carter’s expert music direction, with mixed results on the meaning nuances.

In the invigorating opening number, “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” the cast superbly displays plenty of attitude and sturdy voices, outfitted in costume designer Sarah Porter’s striking Steampunk outfits. The hair and makeup work accentuated the calculated focus. The imagery also resembled “Sweeney Todd” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

Standing out among the principals is Zachary Allen Farmer as J.J. Peachum, an opportunist preying on the misfortunes of others. He admirably defines him as a shady carnival barker in a city teeming with gypsies, tramps and thieves.

Energetic Sarah Porter channels the surly and cruel alcoholic Mrs. Peachum as Madame Thenardier in “Les Miserables,” loud and lewd. While the charming Porter has a robust singing voice and is usually one of my favorites, a standout in “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Rent” and “The Night of the Living Dead” in particular, she doesn’t convey the power of the “Ballad of Dependency.”

Unfortunately, Todd Schaefer misses the mark as the lead Macheath, who is supposed to be a magnetic lothario, but comes across too laconic. That’s why I didn’t believe the attraction by assorted females — hapless teen Polly Peachum (Cherlynn Alvarez), duped Lucy Brown (Christine Rios), and jaded brothel keeper Jenny Diver (Nikki Glenn).

College student Alvarez has a good voice but her lackluster portrayal of the defiant Polly is whiny and petulant, resorting too often to screeching, and it’s annoying. When Rios appears on any stage, you hear a glorious voice, and she doesn’t disappoint as the jilted Lucy, so it’s too bad that her “Barbara Song” comes an hour and 40 minutes after the opening number. Nevertheless, she is a bright spot, and the catfight between Lucy and Polly is amusing. Glenn’s dour portrayal of the madam doesn’t do justice to the role.

Jeremy Hyatt, effective as Mark in last year’s “Rent,” returns triumpantly as a meek down-and-outer Charles Filch, and he gets to be the monarch’s horse, too.

Brian Claussen, as Readymoney Matt, Kent Coffel as Crookfinger Jake, Luke Steingruby as Bob the Saw, and Todd Micali as Walt Dreary comprise a merry band of miscreants. Christopher “Zany” Clark and Rey Arceno are well-suited to play the corrupt Tiger Brown and unscrupulous Rev. Kimball and bumbling Warden Smith.

Always strong Kimi Short, Margeau Steinau and Larissa White captivate as a trio of ladies of the evening. They leave you wanting more as Molly, Betty and Dolly.

Brecht doesn’t want us to emotionally connect to the characters. Rather, he wants us to recognize dishonesty and provoke us to reflect on how we perceive the world around us.

New Line is challenging us to get up, go out, and do something about the sorry state we see. The musical is a good production, if not the traditional one beloved by so many, especially scholars of The Berliner Ensemble, but certainly in New Line’s wheelhouse.

I applaud the intentions, but I wanted to see more from certain performers to really pierce the pretense of conventions. That is always a good thing.

“The Threepenny Opera”

Who: New Line Theatre

When: Thursday-Saturday through June 20

Where: Washington University South Campus Theatre

Tickets: www.newlinetheatre.com, MetroTix: 314-534-1111