TAMPA — As the house lights dimmed for the second act, burglars and pickpockets, prostitutes and scam artists weaved between the little tables of the Jaeb Theater, warning customers they'd best wind down their talking and silence their phones. This was done with a wink but the point was made. This is elitism flipped on its head, "opera" for the underclass. From the stage, Chris Jackson as Macheath, namesake of Mack the Knife, tossed out asides, schmoozing with all of the oily charm he had exhibited thus far.
The Threepenny Opera premiered in 1928 but still feels edgy. Jobsite Theater's musical is its most ambitious in recent years and possibly ever, a massive effort. It's full of music, challenging stuff handled by music director Jeremy Douglass' band and some fine vocalists in the cast. Director David Jenkins, whose theater normally performs in the smaller, adjacent Shimberg Playhouse at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, clearly wanted to build a show to fit the expanded space. Everything is big — Ryan Finzelber's abstract set with at least a half-dozen levels, cast member Katrina Stevenson's period costumes, and an expansive, even hungry use of the theater's four levels.
Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill thoroughly adapted John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, itself a parody of Handel operas that debuted exactly 200 years earlier. Like all things Brecht, lovers and heroes and villains do exist, but all are ultimately subsumed by the playwright's social commentary, which is about undermining bourgeois conventions as starkly as possible.
A majority of the characters here live under the boot of the powerful, who have defined justice as whatever suits their purposes. Two exceptions are J.J. Peachum, who organizes panhandlers in order to collect a portion of their donations; and his equally scheming wife, Celia. Jonathan Harrison plays Peachum deftly, and Fo'i Meleah gives Celia every wrinkle the playwright could have envisioned, plus a few more. The couple are unhappy because daughter Polly Peachum intends to marry Macheath, a sociopath whose rap sheet grows longer by the day.
They set up the embittered Jenny Diver to rat him out, which puts police commissioner Tiger Brown (Derrick Phillips) in an awkward position, since he's an old army buddy of Macheath who's accustomed to looking the other way. Justice is eventually served but it's Brechtian justice, which is a good thing because otherwise no one would be left to tell this tale.
Both Harrison and Meleah deliver terrific vocals; as do Amy Gray as ("Pirate") Jenny and Giselle Muise as Polly, who adds a wonderfully twisted Barbie-doll layer to her character, and Maggie Mularz as Lucy Brown, Macheath's "other" wife. There's more than a nod or two to vaudevillian cops-and-robbers humor and attendant slapstick (in one throwaway moment, for example, Phillips as Brown slaps four criminal cheeks with one blow, very Three Stooges-esque).
If there's a downside, it might be the very eagerness with which this show attacks its material. At times, particularly in the second act, it becomes hard to distinguish effort from laboriousness, and that deliberate, over-the-top energy with shouting and noise.
The most obvious deficiency is that Macheath is very much a singing role, and Jackson is very much not a singer. He tried to steer between the buoys of flat and sharp, but more regularly hit flat. He is, however, a fine actor, and between songs delivers a likable scalawag who owns some of the play's most pointedly philosophical dialogue. Staging in this show makes other statements, notably cardboard beggar's signs that morph into subtly contemporary protest signs (including an "I Can't Breathe" sign, reminiscent of the 2014 death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police).
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Macheath kept up his patter to the audience as their phones went dark and were tucked away. Just before the act started in earnest, he said, "If you were looking for some escapism, you chose the wrong show, huh?"
Jackson's ad-libbed line got a chuckle, even though he was wrong. The Threepenny Opera is serious theater, all right, but the combined efforts did create many moments into which those customers could escape, and smile. And that is its strength.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.