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Few Broadway stars can boast that their own soap-and-perfume line is for sale in the theater lobby. This retail coup has, though, been wrangled by Alan Cumming, the compulsively watchable satyr of an actor who headlines in the Roundabout Theater Company’s The Threepenny Opera. When intermission arrives at this bracingly dark musical, and you stroll from your seat to stretch your legs, you find yourself contemplating a display of Cumming’s cosmetics, which include a cologne, a body lotion, and a soap. According to a report in the Village Voice, the cologne contains top notes of whiskey and bergamot, and core notes of cigar, Douglas Fir, and rubber.

The vendor booth bears witness to the odd mixture of commercial and artistic forces brought to play in this prickly, provocative Threepenny, staged at Studio 54 (the former nightclub) by director Scott Elliott. The show has generated oceans of buzz with its involvement of celebrities, and I’m not talking about the iconic Germans, Bertolt Brecht (playwright) and Kurt Weill (composer), who created Threepenny in 1928. Far more hype-worthy these days are pop diva Cyndi Lauper (“Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), who portrays the prostitute Jenny in this production, and chanteuse Nellie McKay, who does a sly turn as the innocent-well, somewhat innocent-heroine Polly Peachum.

Wait, there’s more! Veteran thespian Jim Dale, who portrays Polly’s scheming father, Mr. Peachum, turns out to be the voice behind the award-winning Harry Potter audiobooks. (Millions of road-weary drivers thank you, Jim!) Saturday Night Live alumna Ana Gasteyer embodies Mrs. Peachum. And couture darling Isaac Mizrahi designed the costumes-mostly a louche mixture of undergarments, leggings, and leather boots (in one scene, set in a brothel, the underwear is glow-in-the dark orange, matching the performers’ orange lipstick).

The Playbill bios for the production, in other words, brim with the success stories of Western capitalism. And yet, the musical itself was written as an attack on that very economic system. Based on John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera, Threepenny paints a cynical portrait of corruption and criminality in Victorian England, with the figure of the swashbuckling outlaw Macheath (Cumming) at its center. Riddled with biting references to bourgeois complacency and the immorality of the social order, the musical testifies to Brecht’s broader artistic project: creating anti-illusionistic theater that forces audiences to think critically about society.

So the Roundabout staging makes for an uneasy fit-revolutionary sentiments and product-hawking twenty-first-century luminaries. The disconnect becomes glaringly obvious in one of director Elliott’s less successful touches, a parade of actors who emerge from the wings during one of the show’s pessimistic numbers wearing logo-emblazoned T-shirts: Exxon, HBO, Chanel, Home Depot, and more. Is this tableau a snide (and hypocritical) indictment of our mercantile culture? Is it a deprecating reference to the star power in this production? The scene is too self-conscious to succeed as either.

But overall, Elliott manages to craft a lurid, interesting, and deliberately abrasive theatrical experience, starting with the opening sequence, in which the actors run on stage and shatter the fourth wall by applying each other’s eye makeup. As the conscience-free-and, in this version, bisexual-Macheath, who sets the plot in motion by marrying Polly, Cumming swaggers about, essentially doing a version of the lubricious-pixie act that scored him a Tony for Cabaret. More impressive is Dale, whose Cockney Mr. Peachum-always fidgeting with his tie-pulses with an idiosyncratic energy that recalls the actor’s Harry Potter tour de force.

Her hair a mass of blond frizz, Lauper makes an effectively grim and brassy whore, although her initial rendering of Threepenny’s famous “Song of the Extraordinary Crimes of Mac the Knife” sounded a little thin on the day I saw it. McKay fares better with Weill’s spiky, oompah-ridden score, which vaguely suggests a rusted carousel getting mugged by a beer hall. McKay’s interpretation of Polly is, incidentally, the most Brechtian of the performances-she delivers all her lines with a fetching half-smirk, reminding us that the play is merely artifice.

But can any of Brecht’s political messages really survive this production’s VIP quotient? The question becomes particularly pressing in light of Wallace Shawn’s new, brutally colloquial translation of the book and lyrics. There’s a real shock value to a song like “How Do Humans Live?”, which proclaims that humans survive “by eating humans / By boiling, frying, roasting, toasting those whom they can.” With a grim relish for vulgarity that recalls the TV show South Park, the song goes on to flay middle-class morality: “You guys just love to regulate our sex lives; / A penis here is bad, but here it’s good. / But we think that hypocrisy just wrecks lives.”

This insurrectionary attitude may seem to lack credibility when it’s delivered by a cast that has been profiled in Vogue. But maybe the consumerist glitz makes this Threepenny all the truer to Brecht’s vision. You can’t fully believe in the character of Jenny when you know it’s really Lauper, from your Hits of the 1980s CD. So Lauper’s fame works toward the distancing effect Brecht was aiming for.

More broadly, the capitalism-meets-socialism vibe of the Roundabout production captures some of our society’s paradoxical truths. We live in a country where Philip Morris airs antismoking ads; where beer companies urge us to drink responsibly; where legislation that shreds civil liberties gets the moniker of the USA Patriot Act. Surely that kind of blatant doublespeak has something in common with a dissolute Macheath who just happens to be promoting his own cologne.

Published in the 2006-05-19 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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