The University of Memphis production of "The Threepenny Opera" is a fine mess, overcooked in some parts and exquisite in others.
When the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musical opened in 1928 in Berlin, it scandalized the right-thinking establishment even as it spread in popularity.
With the antiheroic lead character Macheath setting the (im)moral tone, the story, like Mackie's blade, skewers capitalists who exploit in the name of charity, police who strive to free the criminals and lovers who betray for money.
The U of M production, directed and choreographed by Mark Allan Davis, is ambitious, protracted, and as hubristic as the indefatigable killer/lover/conniver Macheath. The first act trudges along interminably self-indulgent, relieved mainly by the engaging presence of AJ Bernard as the oily Mr. Peachum, whose daughter, Polly, indecorously goes off and marries Macheath.
Bernard is adding to his impressive list of performances that show a fine range and great ability. Even with the many distractions in the "3PO" circus, Bernard keeps the audience engrossed.
Those distractions diminish as the three acts plow on (or maybe the viewer just gets accustomed to them). But when the smoke clears (for the umpteenth time) and the jazz-influenced musical finally hits its stride, then you're free to fully appreciate the terrific bits of staging and fine performances from the leads.
Jacob Wingfield's Mac-heath is charismatic, and Kristina Hanford's Polly is a hilariously manipulative naif. Shakiera Adams offers a riveting Jenny whose electrifying voice propels "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" in the musical's most powerfully staged — and chilling — scene.
Also outstanding are Elizabeth Kellicut as Lucy Brown and Janie Crick as Mrs. Peachum, both with considerable vocal skills and comedic savvy.
Davis' choreography is often, if not always, effective, but interesting enough to take the viewer's mind off the contrived set that seems to exist for the purpose of being contrived.
So there it is: a production that either fails gloriously or limps to victory. There's no doubting the energy, however, and there is plenty of talent that bears watching.
‘The Threepenny Opera’
7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday at the University of Memphis theater building, 3745 Central. Tickets: $20 adults, $15 seniors and students. Call 901-678-2576.