The Broadway production of "3 Penny Opera" may have Sting, but it has no sting. Without a sense of outrage, of dark irony, the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill masterpiece seems as harmless as a community production of "H.M.S. Pinafore."
There is, of course, a delicious irony in a work that calls itself a threepenny opera (a parody of an 18th-century work called "The Beggar's Opera") being mounted in a Broadway theater for $55 a ticket. Curiously, it doesn't have even the production values or the slick professionalism that were once the hallmakrs of "commercial" Broadway and that would have made it the antithesis of the rough-hewn, angry work Brecht and Weill intended.
It's not a case of "uptown" glitz subverting the work of a "downtown" sensibility. What is shocking about this "3 Penny" is its very blandness. John Dexter, who sabotaged the delicate spirit of Tennessee Williams' "Glass Menagerie" a few years ago by stressing the Brechtian elements most directors wisely ignore, now sabotages Brecht by staging him as if he were an amiable confectioner of Camp romps.
This is apparent as soon as Ethyl Eichelberger opens the show by explaining it is written by beggars for beggars. If he did it with a hint of edge, it would point up the irony of presenting a Marxist polemic in the Lunt-Fontanne, with its giddily pretentious decor. But no. Eichelberger trips feyly across the stage, making it very clear we are in for an evening of meaninglessness.
None of the numbers is done with any sense of style. Several songs, for example, parody Bach chorales. The 1928 audience would have been shocked at the secular lyrics accompanying solemn melodies. To shock contemporary audiences is admittedly tougher, but they should at least understand what is being satirized. Not in this lifeless staging.
"Lucy's Aria," a parody of a florid opera aria, omitted from the 1928 production because the actress left the cast, has been restored. Although Kim Criswell sings it with vocal skill and zest, the staging is halfhearted if not amateurish.
Parody, the weapon of youth to lay siege on the values of its elders, is at the heart of the work, which, like its 18th-century inspiration, parodies the conventions of grand opera to make social statements.
Brecht wrote "3 Penny Opera" when he was formulating his idea of "epic theater," an attempt to escape from the stuffy confines of domestic drama and from the reassuring esthetic of emotional "catharsis." He did not want to give his audience emotional release. He wanted to instruct them, to galvanize them.
To use the heroic manner of opera to tell a story of thieves, whores and corrupt policemen should give the whole piece a comic zing. But that would require a precision of staging that is nowhere evident. The effect is entirely limp and flaccid.
The only performer who gives the material the power it requires is Georgia Brown, whose earthiness and vocal prowess mine the comic possibilities beautifully. Maureen McGovern has damaged her vocal cords and will not be back for several weeks. Her understudy, Nancy Ringham, sings and acts attractively, but this isn't "Brigadoon." She sings "Pirate Jenny" with so little passion no one could imagine its harrowing potential.
As for Sting, I admire the guts it takes for him to do theater, but I don't know why he chose this piece for his debut. He has very little music (a chorus of "Mack the Knife" has been added for the curtain call). Too often his singing is mere crooning, which is the opposite of what the savage songs require. He should be a bravura presence, but generally he's posing and smiling cockily at the audience. Even when he does a rudimentary tango it has surprisingly little flair.
The new translations by Michael Feingold claims to be closer to the original than the familiar Marc Blitzstein translation. Certainly the narrative is clear and direct. The lyrics are clever ("a 50-gun galleon" has a nice internal rhyme), but often their cleverness distracts from the melodic line and the drama.
Feingold conveys Brecht's sometimes childish delight in scatology, but a line like "No wonder we're unhappy / The whole thing is so crappy," without the pungence of German sounds, just seems silly.
Jocelyn Herbert's sets and costumes have an inappropriate prettiness. She has a merry-go-round-like frame for the onstage band, which trivializes the visuals. To have Julius Rudel conduct a 15-piece orchestra, though he obviously projects the score's cynical tone admirably, seems needless overkill.
Brecht aimed for the so-called alienation effect, to keep the audience from sentimentalizing, say, beggars, any more in the theater than they do in the street. Dexter achieves a different sort of alienation. He will confirm the feeling of young people who have come to see Sting that they should keep their distance from the theater. Nothing about this production suggests that live theater can be as exciting as MTV.
It sounded like a mixed marriage of inconvenience fixed in gimmick-heaven by a drunk advertising man only half-recovered from his hangover: Brecht/Weill, "The 3-Penny Opera," Sting, Broadway, John Dexter and a cost of millions. Marriage? More like liaisons dangereuses!
It couldn't possibly work. It does. Go see it beat the odds for yourself at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater where it opened last night.
From virtually the evening's opening moment, when a tattered Ethyl Eichelberger, giving a fiercely grotesque performance of baroque proportions as the show's Ballad Singer commentator, grimly grinds his barrel-organ and wheezily breaks into the show's most famous song, "Mack the Knife," we sense the unexpected miracle taking shape.
The disastrous out-of-town notices and bad-mouthed previews fade into the distance as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's bewitchingly pungent and acridly funny, if muddled, allegory of crime, punishment and social justice slowly, inexorably flies up from the stage, borne largely by Weill's creaky, cranky and unforgettable wings of song.
First comes the music. This is one of the great scores of the 20th century - it is not simply better or worse than "Oklahoma!" or "My Fair Lady." It is a work of more serious intent and, more important, achievement. We are dealing here with a score on the level of Verdi's "Falstaff."
There is no other music of this quality and accessibility on Broadway, and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim can eat their imitative hearts out.
Also we are accustomed to the music being delivered to us in phoney packages, and I don't just mean Bobby Darin or Ella Fitzgerald singing "Mack the Knife," which are fine in their Brechtian own way.
The complete work is still best-known here by the old, and vastly popular, Off-Broadway sanitized corruption by Marc Blitzstein, although in 1976, Joseph Papp produced an infinitely superior and far sharper, more accurate version directed by Richard Foreman with the musical supervision of Stanley Silverman.
The translation was pretty good, but this time round they have gone back to an earlier Michael Feingold translation (presumably updated a bit) which Tony Richardson used for his radical, but largely misunderstood London production with Vanessa Redgrave in 1972.
The Feingold, despite a few jarring neologisms, which Brecht himself (hardly a gentle or even gentlemanly adaptor!) would doubtless have OK'd, has the right alienating harshness, and neat sense of speech-song, Brecht and Weill - working in the same operatic climate as Alban Berg and Ernst Krenek - favored.
The music this time is under the direction of Julius Rudel, who has done a wonderful job of restoring Weill to Weill: If you listen to the original Lotte Lenya recording, this is very much the sound you will hear. Rudel has no "creative" agenda other than faithful interpretation.
In his search for authenticity he has even restored "Lucy's Aria," cut in rehearsal in 1928, and I think this one should have been cut in rehearsal in 1989! However Dexter's staging also has a bizarre authenticity, rather like his oddly impassioned "Mahagonny" for the Met. He would not be my first choice to stage "The 3-Penny Opera" - frankly, I would have favored Bill Gaskill - but his calm clarity, and vision of a beggar city in rags and ruin, helped by the tatterdemalion designs of Jocelyn Herbert, works wonders.
This is not the chill, abrasive "3-Penny Opera" of Brecht's own Berliner Ensemble which thrilled me to the marrow in 1965, but it is Brecht irreverently for now, and, I think, Brecht for New York.
The performances are terrific - apt, lively and sharp on target. Eichelberger I have already mentioned, Alvin Epstein, sinisterly avuncular, and a cynically blowsy Georgia Brown are great as the King and Queen of the Beggars in Victoria's London, and Nancy Ringham (pinch-hitting and home-running for an indisposed Maureen McGovern) and Kim Criswell are both exellent as Polly and Lucy, the main amatory notches on Mack's knife, while Josh Mostel impresses as Mack's gang deputy.
And Mack? How is this unwittingly overpublicized pop star Sting, who looks like a young Olivier, and rather sounds like him as well?
Well, he's not as suavely sinister as Raul Julia, Broadway's last big Mack, nor has he the freeze-dried, arrogant charm of Brecht's own Ekkehard Schall, but he is very, very good indeed.
Shiftless, shifty and determinedly dishonorable, Sting has a natural presence and makes a debonair bandit-villain, although the social implications of the role defeat him as they have defeated everyone else.
For this is, ultimately the evening's one problem: Brecht's doctrinaire approach to the original 18th-century John Gay play.
Brecht has contributed atmosphere, humor and poetic irony, and Weill has given us a great and incredibly homogenous score, but the social implications grafted onto Gay's theme, fail to take.
Which is why even a perfect stage performance of the musical itself can never quite repeat the emotional impact of an original cast recording. Brecht goofed, while Weill whirled.
This accepted, the pleasures of the evening are boundless, and the joy of the lively live performances something to be treasured. It is - quite effortlessly - the best musical in town, this season, next season and for anticipated time.
After emerging from the inert gray mass that is Broadway's ''Threepenny Opera,'' the first thing you want to do - assuming you don't drink - is run home and listen to any available recording of its score. The reason is not to revisit the evening's high points - there are none - but to make sure you are still among the living. How could these scathing songs, forged in the crucible of the century's apocalypse, sound as numbing as they do from the stage? One would have to be lobotomized not to respond to the blasted fusion of jazz, classicism and political rage with which Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht first rocked Berlin in 1928.
As it happens, nearly any ''Threepenny Opera'' recording (Bobby Darin's possibly excepted) will resuscitate the spirit absent at the Lunt-Fontanne. One album of particularly relevant note is the 1985 anthology ''Lost in the Stars,'' in which contemporary musicians of many idioms take on the Weill canon. Among the recording's participants is Sting, Broadway's new Macheath. On record, he sings a monotonous ''Ballad of Mack the Knife'' - not his number now, but all too consistent with his current performance.
Yet a few cuts away on the same record, Tom Waits performs a nasty, pulsating ''What Keeps Mankind Alive?'' - a number Sting does puncture at the Lunt - and the incendiary Brecht-Weill spirit comes at you like a slap in the face. Mr. Waits even helps one understand the promising notion behind the mating of a serious pop icon and ''Threepenny Opera'': the raw aggression of Brecht can indeed overlap with the outlaw pose in contemporary rock.
But this idea, like the evening's other sincere intentions, is fumbled in the execution. A plausible actor in the films ''Plenty'' and ''Stormy Monday,'' Sting is a stiff onstage. He seems to hope that a large cane and a smug, insistent pout will somehow convey the menace of a character who is a murderer, rapist, thief and arsonist - Brecht's idea of a ruthless capitalist. Not that the star's Macheath should be put on the gallows as the scapegoat for all the production's ills. So tepid is the level of performance throughout the company that one must wonder if another director might have coaxed more out of Sting and everyone else.
The director at hand is John Dexter, whose past forays into epic theater (''M. Butterfly'') and Brecht-Weill (the Metropolitan Opera's ''Mahagonny'') would seem to make him ideal for ''Threepenny Opera.'' Like Richard Foreman, who staged the blistering 1976 revival with Raul Julia, he would rather be faithful to original Brechtian practice than to the 1954 Marc Blitzstein ''Threepenny'' adaptation that ran Off Broadway for seven years.
Mr. Dexter uses an unbowdlerized (if not uncut) translation by Michael Feingold that restores Brecht's scatology and the complete, correctly ordered score. Jocelyn Herbert's scenic rendition of lowlife Victorian London - a few scraps of wood that might have been left out in the rain -leaves acres of room to expose the stage's machinery. The lighting is harsh and white, the projected scene titles all in place. Far from trying to tart up ''Threepenny Opera'' for Broadway, Mr. Dexter makes the show look so spartan that by contrast ''Our Town'' might seem decadent.
Even so, the outward faithfulness to Brechtian alienation does not pay off, because the trappings are never harnessed to the theatrical energy that might animate Brecht's lacerating view of a bourgeois hell in which hypocrisy is the daily bread. The scalding style and passion required in the acting and music are absent. There's no visual focus to the staging, no Hogarthian imaginative verve to enliven the drab palette of Ms. Herbert's sets and costumes. Foolproof sequences pass without the bite of black humor: the Peachums' entrepreneurial display of the five pitiful beggars' costumes their employees use for cadging money from the guilty rich; Macheath and Polly's wedding amid posh stolen furnishings; the tango reunion of Macheath and the prostitute Jenny. Julius Rudel's onstage band, sitting on top of the squat and cluttered playing area, renders the familiar orchestrations with a lassitude more appropriate to a hotel-lobby tea service than a Weimar cabaret.
It says much about this production that the neighboring ''Sweeney Todd,'' a musical influenced by Weill and Brecht that shares the setting of ''Threepenny Opera'' but not its rigorous banishment of sentimentality, comes across as a more vitriolic assault on capitalism's inequities. Lacking any clear line of attack or variations in pace, Mr. Dexter's staging often seems to leave his cast milling about aimlessly waiting for the next cue.
One never has the sense of a company unified in its effort to put across a show and its acidic ideology. Each performer occupies a different, yet equally inappropriate, theatrical universe, from Kim Criswell's campy Lucy to Larry Marshall's deadly earnest Tiger Brown to Suzzanne Douglas's saccharine Jenny, who elocutes the nihilistic ''Solomon Song'' as if she were instructing the audience in ''Getting to Know You.''
At least some drama is provided by the predicament of Nancy Ringham, an understudy abruptly asked to fill in for Maureen McGovern, whose vocal ailments required her to vacate the role of Polly for several weeks. But here, as when she was similarly elevated to stardom on the opening-night eve of the last Rex Harrison revival of ''My Fair Lady,'' Ms. Ringham proves simply a competent ingenue.
Not that a Stratas or a Lenya might have made a difference. The company's experienced Brecht-Weill hands, Alvin Epstein and Georgia Brown as the Peachums, seem as tired and mechanical as the others, as if this ''Threepenny'' had been running for seven years. (They might at least bother to look at each other.) Though Ethyl Eichelberger's bald head and wicked scowl do make the Ballad Singer an arresting George Grosz caricature, he, too, wears out his early welcome by pursuing his shtick to unchecked, self-indulgent excess in the hours to come.
It is when Mr. Eichelberger first greets the audience that Mr. Dexter's production makes its one stab at a statement: he announces that we are to see a ''new American version'' of the piece ''played by the poorest of the poor for an audience of their own.'' In the English-accented staging that follows, this conceit is more or less forgotten until a post-curtain-call coda, in which chorus members, apparently representing the homeless of New York, bed down for the night in cardboard boxes.
These ''homeless'' look more like hippies from ''Hair'' than the battered souls visible just outside the theater; they might well have received their ersatz beggars' costumes from the hypocritical Peachums. And who exactly are the hypocrites here? The creators of this ''Threepenny Opera'' aren't helping the poor by dragging them on clownishly to provide a boffo finale to a torpid show; like the Peachums, they are merely exploiting the poor to serve their own commercial enterprise. Not for the first time does Brecht get the last - and, in this production, the only - laugh.