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: Carmie McDonald’s Take on Preserving Georgia’s Historic Theatres, Reviving Communities ‘One Theatre at a Time’ and the Fox Theatre Institute’s Second Annual Theatre Revival Tour

Posted on: Apr 30th, 2014 By:

by Melanie Crew
Contributing Writer

Carmie McDonald, Community Engagement Manager at the Fox Theatre Institute (FTI), an outreach division of Atlanta’s Fabulous FoxTheatre, immerses herself in Georgia’s rich and glorious history of magical movie palaces and theatres along with the communities that have stood by them. What’s even better is that she gets the opportunity to join the communities the FTI has served while celebrating their successes during their free Second Annual Theatre Revival Tour, coming to a theatre near you, May 1 through May 3, 2014!

The Revival Tour will make stops at The President Theatre in nearby Manchester, Ga. on May 1, followed by a stop at Atlanta’s own, The PlazaTheatre, ranked as one of the world’s top 20 movie theatres [Men’sJournal, April 2014] on May 2 and lastly, the tour will come to a halt in Athens, Ga., showcasing The Morton Theatre on May 3! Each stop on the tour includes a community festival, helping raise awareness of the importance of historic preservation and showcasing all three restoration project venues funded by their highly competitive FTI grants. Atlanta’s own legendary blues chanteuse, Francine Reed, will take the stage and woo the crowds at each stop along the way!

Before jumping head first into her dream job, McDonald hailed from Savannah where she earned graduate degrees in Historic Preservation and Architectural History at Savannah College of Art & Design. She worked her preservation magic with the Historic SavannahFoundation and was the perfect candidate for the Community Engagement Manager at the FTI.

The FTI is the Fox Theatre’s way of giving back to the community that rescued it from its near demolition back in the ‘70s. In an effort to draw the public into the realm of its glory days while raising awareness of the importance of historic preservation, the Fox Theatre began hosting their Fox Theatre Tours in the spring of 2013 [Herald-Journal, May 2013]. These 60-minute guided tours expose audiences to the behind-the-scenes details and illustrious history of the extravagant and palace-like venue which remains just as magnificent as it did when their doors opened in 1929. And as an added bonus, you’ll have the opportunity to meet our very own Kool Kat Scott Hardin, projectionist at the Fox Theatre since 1978 [July 2013; see ATLRetro’s Kool Kat feature on Scott Hardin, here].

ATLRetro caught up with Carmie McDonald for a quick interview about the FTI, the importance of historic preservation in Georgia’s communities and her love of the Fabulous Fox Theatre, which excitedly celebrates its 85th birthday this year!

Community Engagement Manager for the Fox Theatre Institute (FTI) sounds like such a cool job! Tell our readers how you landed such an envious gig and what’s your favorite aspect of the job?

I’ve been with the Fox Theatre Institute (FTI) since 2008 and not a day goes by that I don’t pause to think about what a privilege it is to work here. It is rewarding to be part of an organization that has meant so much to the Atlanta community for 85 years. I love seeing someone experience the Fox Theatre for the first time.  You’re never too old to be swept away by the magic of this place!

Has being in the historic preservation field always been a dream of yours? Anything interesting you can tell our readers on what drew you to such a fascinating field?

I’ve always appreciated old buildings and the stories they tell about our past, so historic preservation was a natural fit as a career choice. But, historic preservation is not just a movement about buildings and the past. It is also about the people in the community and the future. I love helping ensure that our historic theatres will be here for future generations to enjoy.

What is the Fox Theatre Institute (FTI) and what does it do for the community? Why do you think it is important to preserve Georgia’s theatres?

The Fox Theatre Institute (FTI) is the community engagement division of the Fox Theatre. We provide support to historic theatres throughout the region in the form of preservation and operations assistance. There are more than 260 historic theatres throughout the state and each one is a significant part of the community it serves. Preserving these theaters is an important part of community-wide revitalization.

What can you tell us about the two restoration projects that were completed this year?  The President Theatre in nearby Manchester and The Plaza Theatre located right here in Atlanta?

The Fox Theatre Institute provided The President Theatre with funding to complete the restoration of their façade, from the marquee to the top of the tower and spire, both being in disrepair for more than thirty years. Through the support of FTI and other granting organizations, this theatre is being restored to its original Art Deco splendor. FTI also provided grant funding for the restoration of The Plaza Theatre’s landmark marquee. The restoration process at The Plaza involved removing rust and repainting the sign to its original colors.  In addition, new LED lighting was added to create a more sustainable and eco-friendly marquee.

And what can you tell us about Athens’ Morton Theatre which received their grant in 2011 and is also spotlighted on this tour?

The Morton Theatre holds a special place in Athens’ history. It was built as a Vaudeville theatre in 1910 by Pink Morton, a prominent African-American businessman. Since then it has served the community as an anchor on Athens’ ‘Hot Corner,’ the historic African-American business district at the intersection of Hull and Washington streets. FTI provided funding for restoration of the theatre’s original wood flooring system in 2011.

How does the FTI choose which theatre receives a grant? Is it a competitive process?

FTI accepts applications from historic theatres that are owned by a public agency or non-profit organization. Applications are reviewed by a panel of arts and preservation professionals. Funding is awarded to theatres that will create significant economic and cultural impact to the communities they serve.

Why do you think it is important to preserve art and culture? What is the goal of the FTI and their desire to, “Revitalize Georgia’s communities, one theatre at a time?”

Arts and culture contribute to Georgia’s communities by creating jobs and providing tax revenue. They are essential to education because they facilitate critical-thinking and communication skills. Furthermore, arts and culture are integral components of vibrant, creative and livable cities. FTI believes that the revitalization of a historic theatre can provide a focal point for the economic and cultural development of a community.

Tell our readers a little bit about the Second Annual Theatre Revival Tour kicking off on May 1, 2014? What sort of exciting things do you have in store for attendees?

FTI will showcase three of its theatre restoration projects during the Second Annual Theatre Revival Tour. The three-day tour, taking place May 1 – 3, aims to raise awareness for each of the historic venues by embracing local community efforts surrounding the preservation of these theatres. Each destination on the Tour will host a community festival, featuring Atlanta resident and legendary blues songstress, Francine Reed.

Tell us a little bit about FTI’s relationship with the celebrated blues chanteuse, Francine Reed and how she was chosen to headline the community festivals attached to the tour.

FTI believes in supporting local talent whenever possible. Whether working with preservation contractors or musicians, FTI strives to partner with people that are connected with their communities. Francine Reed has an amazing voice and a deep connection with the music scene in Atlanta, so selecting her to headline our Theatre Revival Tour was an easy decision!

Anything exciting in the works for future FTI projects?  How about anything new happening with the Fox Theatre Tours you’d like to tell our readers?

Forty years ago, the people of Atlanta rallied to save the Fox Theatre from demolition. Since that time, the Fox Theatre has been deeply committed to giving back to the community that saved us. Be on the lookout for some exciting events during this special anniversary year!

 

 

All photographs are courtesy of the Fox Theatre Institute (unless otherwise noted) and used with permission.

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The Devil Lives in Jake La Botz’s Throat: The Dark Pleasures of Raising Hell as the Trickster Who Tempts and Teases the GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY

Posted on: May 10th, 2012 By:

Jake La Botz and Kylie Brown in the Alliance Theatre’s world premiere production of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. Photo by Greg Mooney.

As the highly anticipated world premiere production of the Stephen King/John Mellencamp/T-Bone Burnett GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY hits its final week at the Alliance Theatre, there’s one thing critics and audiences seem to be able to agree on. Jake La Botz lights the stage on hellfire as The Shape, a supernatural trickster, tempter and Greek Chorus to the Southern Gothic Cain and Abel tale. Arms and chest riddled with tattoos with a slicked back pompadour that conjures images of Jerry Lee “The Killer” Lewis, La Botz looks like the older man your mama warned you to stay away from but who you were certain held the keys to Elvis’s “One Night of Sin.” His untamed bump, grind and sensuosity can’t help to remind one of the scandalous early days of rock ‘n’ roll when church moms sought to ban Elvis and THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW refused to shoot the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll from the waist down.

All of which makes it a bit of a surprise that GHOST BROTHERS is Jake’s first go at musical theatre. But he’s a veteran musician who often plays tattoo parlors and a character actor in movies ranging from independent cult features like Terry Zwigoff‘s GHOST WORLD to major Hollywood pictures such as RAMBO. His vocals and lyrics reverberate with dark poetry and raw energy. He even sings a song called “The Devil’s Lives in My Throat.” He’s been compared to Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and a “modern day Hank Williams” by Steve Buscemi who has cast him in two of his movies, ANIMAL FACTORY and LONESOME JIM.

ATLRetro recently caught up with Jake to find out more about how he approached the role of The Shape and what’s next for him after the curtain falls on this virgin run on Sunday May 13.

How did you land the role of The Shape and why did you personally want to play the part?

I got an email from Laura Stanczyk, a heavy-hitting New York casting director, a couple of years ago to come in and audition for a show called HARPS AND ANGELS that was set to Randy Newman’s music. At the time I was living in New Orleans, touring as a singer/songwriter, and occasionally acting in films… no background whatsoever in theatre. To this day I have no idea how Laura Stanczyk found me. After flying to New York to meet with Laura, Randy and director Jerry Zaks – and not getting the part – I thought ‘musical theatre… hmmm… what a fluke… but that was interesting.’ Laura must’ve kept me in her mental Rolodex because when GHOST BROTHERS came along, she sent me an email that said “Jake, I have something you are PERFECT for” She was right. I took the job because I wanted to work with an exciting group of people and explore new territory as an actor – both the role and the medium.

Jake La Botz as the malevolent character The Shape in Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. Photo by Greg Mooney.

Your performance can’t help but remind me of a time when rock n roll was down ‘n’ dirty and just emerging from blues and honkytonk, Elvis Presley was still scandalous with his hip grinds and Johnny Cash wore black. Which musical performers inspired you and why?

Thanks, I’ll take that as a compliment. That was an interesting time in music. It’s almost as if white people were able to touch back into their pre-Christian roots. The stuff Elvis was doing had been done for years by black blues and R ‘n’ B singers before him. Sex and music is primordial –  imagine a ‘pagan’ ritual, Greek god Dionysus.

I’m inspired by all the great roots-American music (blues, gospel, field hollers, hillbilly, ragtime, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, etc). My favorite singers are the ones that sound unique and otherworldly: Skip James, Hank Williams, Blind Willie Johnson, Bob Dylan, Tommy Johnson, Howling Wolf. I like to listen to music that sounds like it’s coming directly from “the source,” i.e. not manipulated too much by the entrepreneurial efforts of ego.

Seems like there could be quite a bit of Randall Flag (THE STAND) in The Shape, too—the manipulator, the trickster. Did Steve give you any background reading or direction in how to prep for the part?

No background or prep work from anyone particularly, although the entire cast was asked to watch Tennessee Williams films. The Shape I’m doing now is the same character I created for the audition, though he has filled out quite a bit since then. And I received quite a bit of good suggestions from John Mellencamp, director Susan Booth and choreographer Danny Pelzig along the way.

Your dialogue makes lots of intimations that The Shape might be The Devil. Is he?

Intimations? You mean like riding up from ‘below’ on an elevator? Wearing red? Talking about how I get bad reviews in church?

In the elevator down to the parking garage after the performance, two older blonde yuppie women told me they liked the show overall but that the language didn’t have to be so obscene, i.e. “tone it down.” Why are they wrong?

I’ve heard that a lot. I’m not sure they are wrong.

What was it like working with John Mellencamp and T-Bone Burnett? Did you collaborate with them at all on the music, or was it more just taking what they gave you and bringing the character to life?

What an honor to work with both of them. The direction I was given was to take the songs and make them my own… make them like The Shape. I’ve enjoyed doing that. I’m playing two of T-Bone’s guitars in the show… how cool is that?!?!

Have you heard anything about where GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY may be performed next and will you be reprising the part of The Shape?

There’s no telling at this point about the future of the show or the cast. I haven’t heard anything confirmed. Of course, I would love to be part of this if it goes to Broadway.

Have you had a chance to get out on the town at all while you’ve been in Atlanta? Any favorite hangout or local musician?

Haven’t had much time to explore. Cast member and country music legend Dale Watson had a Monday night residency at Smith’s Olde Bar that many of us frequented and also performed at. That was a hoot.

What’s next for you after GHOST BROTHERS? I saw something on your Website about a European tour and we’ll be seeing you onscreen in a new movie version of Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD (Directed by Walter Salles; Starring Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen) and in ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER?

From here I head to Cannes for the premiere of ON THE ROAD, followed by a European tour. Then back to NYC to look for a job! Yeah, both movies [are] coming out this year.

If you missed James Kelly’s Retro Review of GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY, you can catch up on it here. To purchase tickets for the final performances, click here.

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