Time passes quickly when you’re having a good time. It passes especially quickly when what’s entertaining you moves so fast that there’s no time to look at your watch. Princeton Festival’s “The Threepenny Opera,” directed by David Kellett, exemplifies the experience of time evaporating. Three hours in real time, the theater piece seems to take only a moment. The Princeton Festival uses the original music by Kurt Weill, along with Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertolt Brecht’s German lyrics, which ran in New York for more than six years.
Mr. J. J. Peachum (the imposing Patrick James) runs an enterprise called “The Beggar’s Big Brother,” which profits by assigning territories in London to ambitious beggars. He and his wife, Mrs. Peachum (the steely Andrianna Smela), have a lovely daughter, Polly, (demure Ashleigh Semkiw). It is hard to understand how the greedy, unfeeling couple could produce a child of such grace, delicacy, and dignity.
Polly falls in love with and marries Mack the Knife, (a slippery Tyler Putnam), who masterminds a gang of criminals when he is not womanizing. The Peachums object to the marriage. Mack, unlike them, they morally assert, runs a dishonest businesss. He has an arrangement with Commissioner of Police Tiger Brown (toadying Robert MacKasek) that keeps him out of jail. In fact, the Commissioner attends the wedding of Polly and Mack.
Wedding guest Jenny (the worldly Christine Egan), entertains at the wedding reception and does not reveal that she is one of Mack’s girlfriends. Sophisticate Jenny is the counterweight to the starry-eyed Polly. Lucy (combative Julianne Park), daughter of the Police Commissioner, is also one of Mack’s girlfriends.
Playing five roles including a street singer, an aspiring beggar, a man of the cloth, a police man, and a royal messenger, Shane Magargal deftly uses seven costumes and employs three different accents to differentiate the characters.
On opening night, the fast-paced musical bristled with nimbleness. The cast sang expressively, moved lithely, and fleshed out roles with memorable details of character. One beggar constantly wiped her nose with her sleeve; another had a noticeable hand tremor. Some 240 people auditioned for the 16 roles in the show.
The company used the space at the Matthews Acting Studio for maximum audience involvement. The orchestra sat in the balcony above and behind viewers, opposite the central performing area. Some scenes were staged on the balcony above the circular performing space. Surrounded by the production, the audience was located geographically within the performance.
The performers, in costume, managed quick set changes and speedy replacement of props within full view of the audience. Their maneuvers were a triumph of engineering and choreography.
The orchestra, skewed towards winds and keyboards, provided background that enhanced the intensity of the show. Repetiteur Taotao Liu was at the keyboards. The instrumentalists inspired confidence. Overwhelming singers with sound, as they did opening night during the Jealousy Duet of Lucy and Polly, seemed appropriate for the women’s catfight. The balance elsewhere, along with the clear diction of performers, made titles unnecessary.
The costuming drew from the early 1930s, and dug deeply. Costume designer Marie Miller managed even to provide Mrs. Peachum with wrinkled lisle stockings secured above the knee by round garters.
Several numbers stood out against the overall excellence of the performance. Watch for the seething tango ballad danced and sung by Mack and Jenny in Act Two. Notice the comical unison gestures of the quartet comprising Mack’s gang: Readymoney Matt (Robert Kramer), Crookfinger Jake (George Colli), Bob the Saw (Peter Perry Lam), and Walt Dreary (Benjamin Lovell). Savor Mr. Peachum’s vivid disdain for those who are less capable than he. Enjoy Jenny’s solos, which Weill wrote originally for his wife, Lotte Lenya. Observe Lucy’s subtle changes of facial expression, and the dramatic mileage she gets out of varying the tilt of her head and the direction of her glance as she employs a full range of vocal dynamics.
Finally, try for a ticket to the remaining shows of the “Threepenny Opera” if you don’t already have one. The Matthews Acting Studio, seating only 85 to 90, is less than a tenth of the size of the 1,000-seat Matthews Theater at McCarter. So competition is fierce.
“The Threepenny Opera,” Princeton Festival, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. Saturday, June 26, 8 p.m. Musical featuring music of Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. $40. 609-537-0071 or www.princetonfestival.org.