Sting Gets Lost In 19th-Century London

Though a box office draw, rock superstar seems miscast as the bandit king Macheath in Bertolt Brecht's `The Threepenny Opera'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`THE Threepenny Opera'' is Bertolt Brecht's saturnine musical about life among the thieves and beggars of l9th-century London. Sting is the superstar who was lead singer of the rock group the Police. You may remember him moving sinuously through a room filled with huge, lit candles as he sang ``Every Breath You Take'' in his hit music video.

Sting plays the bandit king Macheath in a new production of ``The Threepenny Opera,'' which has caroomed into the National Theater here before its Broadway opening this winter. His presence is sure to bring in a new, younger audience that never heard the Marc Blitzstein adaptation that ran Off Broadway in 1954.

This version of the original Brecht-Kurt Weill musical, however, suggests Sting may be more of a miscast actor than a drawing card. His light, pleasant, and here unmiked voice seems lost without his rock backup band among the powerhouse, theatrical voices around him.

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In fact, Sting, whose acting talent was such a welcome surprise in films like ``Plenty'' and ``Dune,'' puts in a better performance as actor than singer in this production. His best musical number is done in the Old Bailey Jail as Mack sings ``Ballad of Living in Style.'' The jail cell forms a sort of cage in which he can sing and swing and hang from the bars like a gymnast. It looks contemporary enough to be a music video.

The main problem may be putting Sting in a theatrical time capsule, so that his rock voice and style are in sync with Macheath, the Victorian bounder and thief. Sting, dapper in long blond locks, mustache, and frock coat, looks historically dashing, but his singing is as modern as MTV.

This work goes back to 17l6, according to Michael Feingold, translator of this version. That year satirist Jonathan Swift wrote to Alexander Pope suggesting that a ``Newgate pastorale'' would be a pretty thing for their mutual friend, the wit John Gay, to write. Swift's suggestion was a satiric one, because Newgate was a notorious and noxious prison. Eventually Gay decided to write not a poem but a ``Beggar's Opera.'' It opened in l728, with Gay's lyrics set to English folk songs. In his program notes, Mr. Feingold writes that it was the forerunner of the musical comedy form. It became part of the standard British and American repertoire for the next 120 years, until Queen Victoria decided she was not amused and closed it.

In 1920, ``The Beggar's Opera'' was revived in London after the war and was revived again in New York and elsewhere. German playwright Bertolt Brecht changed the title to ``The Threepenny Opera'' and rewrote the low-life ``opera'' for the anything-goes theater of the Weimar Republic; he asked his collaborator Kurt Weill to write new music. It was a hit until Hitler shut it down, citing it as degenerate art.

The Blitzstein revival Off Broadway ran seven years. As Feingold notes, it was an adaptation, not a translation, as is his version. This new production is based on that fresh translation by Feingold, at the request of the Kurt Weill Foundation.

The show, however, needs a great deal of work before it's ready for Broadway. Director John Dexter, who transformed ``M. Butterfly'' from its hazardous Washington production to a Broadway hit, may be the man to do it again. In its present form, it lacks the lively pace, brittle wit, 'elan, and dark charm it needs.

But there are some fine performances: Georgia Brown with her big, pungent voice and rowdy presence steals scenes as Mrs. Peacham. Alvin Epstein is convincing as the dastardly Jonathan Jeremiah Peacham. Maureen McGovern as their daughter, Polly, who falls in love with the thief Macheath, gives a complex performance. Winsome and demure one moment, queen of the thieves the next, she sings in a voice sweet and true as a bell. In the role of Jenny Diver, the prostitute who betrays Macheath, Suzzanne Douglas sings with a fire that much of the production lacks. Weill's bittersweet score, with its hits like the ``Ballad of Mack the Knife,'' is as memorable as ever.

The scenery and costumes by Jocelyn Herbert are too glum and dull in the Peachams' opening scenes but more witty and creative for the rest of the show. The musical staging by Peter Gennaro seems oddly dispirited. And music director Julius Rudel might have considered moving the orchestra down into the pit instead of muffling it at the top rear of the stage.

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