THE THREEPENNY OPERA * Book by Bertolt Brecht (new translation by Wallace Shawn) * Music by Kurt Weill * Directed by Scott Elliott * Starring Alan Cumming, Jim Dale, Ana Gasteyer, Cyndi Lauper, and Nellie McKay * Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, New York City, through June 18. 

Scott Elliott’s perverse new staging of The Threepenny Opera has all the ingredients that have made the show a roaring success since its 1928 premiere – a tuneful score by Kurt Weill, an abrasive theatricality and double-edged political commentary generated by playwright and director Bertolt Brecht – but to appreciate them you have to work pretty hard. The production doesn’t have an idea in its head beyond parading its kicky mixture of Broadway veterans (Alan Cumming, Jim Dale) and pop culture stars (Cyndi Lauper, Nellie McKay, TV’s Ana Gasteyer) in costumes by Isaac Mizrahi with as much gender-bending and sexual display as possible. 

The performances are a mixed bag, starting with Cumming as Macheath (“Mack the Knife,” as the show’s most famous song dubs him), whose performance is a pale echo of his electrifying Broadway debut as the MC in Cabaret. Instead of a charismatic gangster, he plays Macheath in a Mohawk as a pansexual punk, locking lips with women, men, and trannies. (In what will surely become this production’s claim to infamy, jealous girlfriend Lucy Brown is played by a man in drag – Brian Charles Rooney -- complete with Crying Game moment.) Lauper as the aging whore Jenny Diver is tentative at first, but singing “Solomon Song” she’s perfectly lit and coiffed to resemble Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Innocence and knowingness superbly cohabit McKay’s portrayal of Macheath’s young bride, Polly Peachum, but her voice grates, as if she’s singing just out of her range. And as her mother Gasteyer, who recently starred in the Chicago production of Wicked, bellows every line as if it’s “Defying Gravity.”

The show was written during Hitler’s ascendancy (five years after it opened, Weill, a Jew, had to flee Germany for his life), and today one could view Threepenny Opera as an ironic depiction of how thieves and criminals end up running the country. But this production soft-pedals the politics, concentrating on a shallow, salacious tour of the demi-monde.

The Advocate, May 23, 2006