RETRO REVIEW: What Keeps a Musical Alive? 7 Stages Feeds Audiences a Dark, Fresh Take on THREEPENNY OPERA

Posted on: Sep 16th, 2016 By:
The wedding of Mackie (Aaron Strand) and Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) with cinematic insert of Mack's trio of cohorts (Jed Drummond, Tad Cameron and Evan Hynes) showcasing the all-stolen posh furniture. Credit: Stungun Photography.

The wedding of Macheath (Aaron Strand) and Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) with cinematic insert of Mack’s trio of cohorts (Jed Drummond, Tad Cameron and Evan Hynes) Credit: Stungun Photography.

THE THREEPENNY OPERA; directed by Michael Haverty and Bryan Mercer; Play by Bertolt Brecht; Music by Kurt Weill and translated from German by Marc Blitzstein; Starring Aaron Strand, Stephanie Lloyd, Kevin Stillwell, Don Finney. 7 Stages. Sept. 9-25, 2016 (EXTENDED TO OCT. 2!). Tickets here.

Atlanta doesn’t have the theatrical reputation of many comparable American cities, but with THE THREEPENNY OPERA (Sept. 9-25), 7 Stages proves once again that this city can and does produce innovative, provocative performances of the sort one expects to see Off-Broadway. This production, envisioned and co-directed by Michael Haverty and Bryan Mercer, is quite simply a must-see if you like Brecht and Weill, value drama that provokes, disturbs, and makes you laugh like Hell, and/or don’t believe Atlanta produces theater at the level of New York.

Set in working class Victorian London, THREEPENNY tells the cautionary tale of MacHeath, aka “Mack the Knife,” a brutal but charming thief and murderer, as well as the many women who love him. The rest of the cast of characters include beggars, criminals, whores, and corrupt police officers. First performed in Berlin in 1928, it was Brecht’s attempt to adapt and update John Gay’s 18th century BEGGAR’S OPERA into a socialist satire of both the profit motive and the mode of musical theater itself right down to a perhaps (or perhaps not) unexpected ending.

From the moment Nicolette Emanuelle (read our Kool Kat of the Week interview with her here) emerges, dressed almost only in an accordion, and belts out the eponymous song, “Mack the Knife” in deep, guttural tones, the visceral, unrelenting tone is set. Let’s say definitively that this ain’t Bobby Darin’s homogenized hit. One can’t help but be reminded of CABARET though that was written much later,. The comparison is appropriate given that while the setting is London, Brecht conceived THREEPENNY in Weimar Germany with a jazz-influenced soundtrack. And thanks to subversive drama such as THREEPENNY, in 1933, Brecht and Weill would have to flee their home country in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power.

Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) and Macheath (Aaron Strand). Credit: Stungun Photography.

Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) and Macheath (Aaron Strand). Credit: Stungun Photography.

This THREEPENNY shows more spunk and further establishes its 1920s setting, along with embracing Brecht’s expressionistic theory of theater, by mimicking silent film at various points, including a cast titles segment at the beginning. The characters parade live in front of a period-consistent unsteady camera with the resulting black-and-white footage projected onto the rear stage wall. THREEPENNY works better with a minimalist set and lower production values (vis-a-vis the abject failure of the big-budget 1989 Broadway revival with Sting which I unfortunately saw but mercifully remember nothing about). In this case, the camera is used a number of times during the show not only to compensate for a limited budget but also to enhance the theatrical experience in creative ways. I won’t divulge the details so as not to spoiler.

While the cast was consistently strong in the preview performance I saw, several actors stood out. THREEPENNY can be made or broken by who plays Mack the Knife. I can say thankfully that Aaron Strand is no Sting. And don’t be fooled by his pretty face. Strand takes the role of bastard by the balls and rides it all the way unabashedly, from displaying a full grasp of the nuances of the play’s dark and biting humor to enthusiastically embracing Mack’s raw sexuality, even endowing a rock n roll edge at points that makes the role feel contemporary without compromising Brecht’s vision. Brecht never wants us to empathize with his characters, but we need to sense Mackie’s extreme charisma despite his inherent sociopathy. The directors have admitted  tossing a nod towards this year’s presidential race, and it’s hard not to see some parallels in a man who can say or do anything and still be loved by many. “What keeps a man alive? He lives on others.” Indeed.

Also memorable are Mr. JJ Peachum (Kevin Stillwell) and especially his wife, played in drag by Don Finney. The Peachums run a lucrative and, to them anyway, respectable business training professional beggars and taking a share of their earnings. If Mackie is a capitalist, the Peachums could be community organizers of sorts especially when later in the play they assemble an army of beggars to disrupt the queen’s coronation. They aren’t pleased at all when their daughter Polly abandons the family business to marry Mackie and take it upon themselves to get him arrested and hanged. Stillwell is an earnest Mr. Peachum who hits all the ironic humor of his character, but Finney is a show-stealer–effusive, maternal, dominant, and absolutely hilarious. In other hands perhaps placing a man in the role would simply be a gag, but Finney sets fire to the stage and easily matches Mack as a formidable adversary.

Mrs. Peachum (Don Finney). Credit: Stungun Photography.

Mrs. Peachum (Don Finney). Credit: Stungun Photography.

For all the darkness in THREEPENNY, as noted, Brecht injected a lot of humor. A special nod should also go to Adam Lowe, who plays not only the clumsy Filch, who applies to Peachum and needs some serious education in begging, but also Tiger Brown, the esteemed police chief of London. Tiger and Mackie served together in the military, and Tiger has been, at least thus far, protecting Mackie from arrest. Their boisterous nudge-nudge-wink-wink rendition of “Army Song” is a show highlight. A call-out should also go for slapstick mastery by Mackie’s trio of henchmen–Readymoney Matt (Jed Drummond) who reminded me in voice, if not hair, of VENTURE BROTHERS’ Pete White, Crookfinger Jake (Tad Cameron), and Bob the Saw (Evan Hynes).

Among the ladies in the cast, Stephanie Lloyd is an appropriately pretty and savvy Polly Peachum, madly in love with Mackie and to whom he leaves the control of his shady business when on the run from the law. The production makes an interesting choice by having her, rather than Jenny the prostitute and Mackie’s original lover, sing “Pirate Jenny” (perhaps the play’s second best known song), a change which I am uncertain about maybe because Lloyd’s voice hits a much higher pitch than the deep-throated Lotte Lenya (composer Kurt Weill’s wife), who played Jenny in both the 1931 German film adaptation and the 1954 Off-Broadway revival which debuted Mark Blitzstein’s translation of Weill’s lyrics, the best-known translation also used in this production. However, casting Dorothy V. Bell-Polk, who resembles Grace Jones, as Jenny is an intriguing surprise. And Jessica De Maria brings the right balance of passion and disgust to Tiger Brown’s daughter Lucy, Mackie’s other “wife” who is considerably less dainty. (As a side note for those who don’t know, a young Bea Arthur played Lucy in the 1954 rendition and Lucy was played by a man, Brian Charles Rooney, in the 2006 Broadway revival which toyed with Mackie’s sexuality and featured Alan Cumming as Mack and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny).

A big hand should also go to DeeDee Chmielewski, 7 Stages’ longtime costume designer, for her monochromatic black and white designs which blend well with the expressionist cinema ambiance,, as well as the simple props and sets designed to maximum effect by Melisa DuBois, and lighting design by Rebecca M.K Makus. And of course, the band. As with 7 Stages’ DRACULA, THE ROCK OPERA (Read ATLRetro’s review here), the musicians are onstage but woven seamlessly into the action. In sum, 7 Stages shows yet again how to maximize a parsimonious assemblage of performers, with my only possible regret being that there weren’t more beggars to march on the coronation.

Move fast and don’t miss this THREEPENNY because while the characters may be perennially stuck in their low societal positions, Atlanta theater runs are always short. As with DRACULA, one wishes this production could hang around for a while and build an audience. 

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Kool Kat of the Week: A Chanteuse and a Cello: Atlanta Newcomer Nicolette Emanuelle Channels Kate Bush and Nick Cave at Kavarna on Sun. Oct. 28

Posted on: Oct 24th, 2012 By:

 

Photo courtesy of Nicolette Emanuelle.

An Evening with Nicolette Emanuelle is an intimate concert by an intriguing new Atlantan on Sunday evening at Oakhurst coffee shop/wine bar Kavarna on Sun. Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. The singer/songwriter/burlesque performer hasn’t been in Atlanta long, but she’s already made her mark with a volatile voice and songwriting style that’s been compared to Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey. Our Retro heart, though, beats to another side of Nicolette – the influence of Kate Bush and Nick Cave. She has a passionate love for the piano and even more for the cello. She had the chutzpah to apply for and score a grant to produce her first rock album, as well as a striking look and a fearlessness in revealing costumes that has been drawing attention at local club events. Oh, and she says she gives great hugs! Needless to say we were just curious enough to make her Kool Kat of the Week!

Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be compared to Kate and Nick and the influence of these two artists on you?

I consider it to be a huge compliment when someone compares me to Kate Bush or Nick Cave. I was raised on Kate Bush, and I have memories of pulling the endpin all the way out on my cello so I could pretend it was a bass to do the choreography from the “Babooshka” video. Nick Cave I wasn’t introduced to until later in life. I fell in love with MURDER BALLADS, and I’ve been a fan ever since.  The only cover I will be playing at this upcoming show is a Nick Cave song in honor of Halloween.

Did you grow up Goth or is that a rhetorical question?

Well, my wardrobe was all black from the ages of 14 -18, but I’m not entirely sure if it was a fashion statement or laziness when it came to fashion. I was much more of a orchestra/drama/band nerd than anything else.

How did you decide upon the stage name of Nicolette Emanuelle?

Emanuelle is my middle name and also a family name. I identify more with the name “Emanuelle” than I ever have with any of my last names – of which there are three.

Lots of artists are raising money for their albums via crowd-sourcing, but you did it for your album PINAFORE the old-school way with a grant from a county arts council. How difficult was that, and are musicians overlooking that opportunity? 

I have my ex-girlfriend Laura to thank for that. She had a history in non-profit work and had written many grants, so when we found the Regional Artists grant [from the North Carolina Arts Council] we decided to go for it. I put together a sample of my work and she wrote the proposal and helped me with the budget (she also played drums on the album). When I told my peers what I was doing they insisted that no one would give a grant for rock music, but that just made me want it even more.  We were ecstatic to find that not only did we get the grant, we got the full amount that we asked for.  I encourage any musician, no matter what their genre to use whatever resources are out there to produce their work.

Grants are a good resource if you have a specific project you are trying to fund, like an album. When considering your proposal keep in mind how your project will benefit the organization, pay attention to their mission and carefully read the grant requirements, then read them again! We went from the angle that not only would recording this album help my music career and allow me to contribute more to the artistic community, it would make the ASC visible in the alternative community. A lot of people didn’t know about the ASC and if they did they didn’t think they would support that part of the artistic community. Some of my peers in that area are now utilizing the many workshops that the ASC holds to help artists become better business people so they can make a living off their work.

Nicolette Emanuelle and her cello. Photo courtesy of Nicolette Emanuelle.

You just moved to Atlanta? Where are you from originally? What drew you here now and what do you think of the music/performance art scene in Atlanta now?

I moved to Atlanta in February – I had visited back in ’97 but never lived here – after a few months of wandering from state to state trying to decide what to do with myself. The most recent place I called home was Seattle; I left there in December, 2011. Originally? I always found that to be an interesting question, and people ask it often. My dad was in the Navy, so a little here, a little there. I love the arts scene here; it is very eclectic and there is a lot of talent.

You’ve said how much you love playing the cello. What is it about this very old-school instrument that appeals to you so strongly?

My cello is my husband, it’s always been there for me even when we were fighting. There was a time when I tried to step away and, but people would call me up with work.  I would ask it “why do they want you? Can’t they see how in love I am with my piano?” and it would sigh that low mournful sigh. Then we learned to communicate and the more we played the better we got; then one day I realized that I was in love with my cello. It is a very different kind of love than I feel for my piano, more like a familial love. You know those relationships you have that exist because you went through some shit together and came out on the other side stronger? That is my cello, it is my voice. It has been my voice when I couldn’t communicate any other way

Photo courtesy of Nicolette Emanuelle.

Kavarna is an intimate musical venue. Can you talk a bit about what you have planned for your performance this Sunday?

All of the songs I will be performing were written between June 2011 to present. I was happily married to a wonderful person. I loved Seattle and loved living on Capitol Hill. I was performing burlesque, training in the aerial arts with a fantastic group called The Cabiri, and I had a loving four-legged companion named “Charlotte.”  I was pretty content with my life, and then I lost everything. It was like a bad country song: I lost my husband, I lost my dog, I lost my home, and then things got worse. I started down a decline and couldn’t recover.

So after two years of producing barely anything music-wise, I was inspired to write. It started when I was packing some of my things to move into a room I was renting after we decided to separate. I found a poem Fritz wrote called “I-Centric” and made a song out of it. It is a very personal set, and so I wanted to play somewhere low-key and intimate. I want to take the audience on a journey with me, and if one person hears something that they can relate to or can take something positive away from it, even if it’s as simple as “I like that groove,” then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. It’s a story, my story on how I came to be in Atlanta miles away from everything I knew and loved. The good news is I have found new things to know and love.

Nicolette Emanuelle as The Cheshire Cat. Photo courtesy of Nicolette Emanuelle.

You also do burlesque and performance art, and have been seen out at club events in some racy outfits. Can you talk a bit about that persona? How does that compliment your music or is it more about having fun with expressing a different side of you?

That is a complicated topic! It first became a way for me to take back my body. It was taken without my permission, and for years I hid under baggy clothes thinking it would protect me somehow. I hated my body and felt betrayed by it. It took a very long time for me to even get to a point where I felt comfortable showing my legs in public. For years I didn’t even own a pair of shorts, and if I wore a skirt, I would wear like two pairs of stockings. I had to re-learn how to love my body. Aerial trapeze helped a lot with that; it allowed me to start trusting my body and what it could do. I started to become impressed that I could climb ropes and flip around bars like when I was a kid. Burlesque taught me that it was okay to be sexy and have fun, that my sexuality was not a curse – well that and years of therapy. I started to notice that while my music always came from a place of pain, burlesque and performance art came from a place of  joy. I need this persona to balance the other one. The funny thing is I don’t feel naked when I’m performing burlesque or out at a club. I feel the most naked when I’m playing music.

What’s next for Nicolette Emanuelle?

I need a drummer and a string player! I would like to put together a band, record my new material and have highly artistic videos made for each song. Then I want to release each song/video a week apart until the whole album is released, then have a big CD release party. At the CD release party I would like to have performance artists and burlesque performers come up with a piece for each song to be performed at the party – and recorded. Then I want to release a DVD of the videos, performances and songs. Then I could cross-promote on film sites, music sites and performance art sites. I’m really excited about this idea and this show is the first step. I’m really hoping some musicians see it, like it and want to play with me. There is nothing like having people to work with who have faith in your vision.

Finally, just how good are your hugs?

Well, you’ll just have to come out to the show see for yourself.

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