For me, summer officially arrives when I follow the sandals, Polos and Liberty blouses to the rolling green foothills of the Berkshires and file through the doors of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The 49th season of the incomparable Tony Award–winning cultural institution that has justifiably become the finest summerlong celebration of theater arts in America is now in full swing on the manicured lawns of Williams College in western Massachusetts. The opening show on the main stage is a long and ambitious revival of the 1928 Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht musical The Threepenny Opera , directed by Peter Hunt, with a cast of 42 that includes such Broadway veterans as Betty Buckley, Karen Ziemba, Melissa Errico and Randy Graff. It’s a bit of a mess. But considering the limitations of space and rehearsal time, the massive production elements, and all of the human traffic on and off the stage, it’s also a bit of a miracle.
The first thing you see is a Ben Shahn–like collage of the face of Queen Victoria with a swastika in one earring and an eye and mustache that might very well belong to Adolf Hitler. The stage is instantly, startlingly set for the three hours of music and melodrama that follow. Arrogantly but amusingly based on John Gay’s 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera , Brecht and Weill radically compared the moral decay of Depression-ravaged pre-Nazi Berlin in 1928 with the sinister moral decadence of Victorian England in 1836, using the catwalks, bridges, pipes and ladders of the Industrial Revolution as a backdrop for a libretto with references to the St. James Club, Albemarle Street, the slums of Whitechapel and other London locations they knew only from books and maps. The result was a bawdy form of Zeitoper , a mixture of opera and music-hall entertainment for the masses created to reflect the spirit of the times-a style Weill followed throughout his career, even in his American works, with continued success. In 1928 The Threepenny Opera , known to the German masses as Die Dreigroschenoper , captivated everyone except the Nazis, who denounced the show as hysterical Communist propaganda, closed it down, and forced Weill and his wife, the legendary Lotte Lenya, to flee for their lives. But The Threepenny Opera would not die. Since the world thinks every new generation tops the list in the historic context of moral corruption, audiences always find fresh relevance in this creaky old war-horse. Countless revivals through the decades-including Marc Blitzstein’s famous 1954 adaptation in Greenwich Village (the version that is appearing in Williamstown), in which Lotte Lenya reprised her original role of Pirate Jenny; a version in 1966 featuring Swedish marionettes; the well-received Lincoln Center revival with Raul Julia; and a catastrophic Broadway version in 1989 starring the pop star Sting-always manage to reinforce public fascination with The Threepenny Opera and meet with the same mixed reactions of analysis, skepticism and controversy as the first New York production in 1933, which closed immediately after the powerful drama critic John Mason Brown denounced it as “appallingly stupid”.
Well, here it is again, through July 6-uneven and a bit of a jolt to the beatific summer repose of the Berkshires, but worth another look. While the band plays cabaret-style above the proscenium, the stage below surges with the impoverished underworld of the dying Weimar Republic, singing raucously about a British coronation that took place in a previous century with accents and costumes that clash comically from both time periods. When the show isn’t overwhelmed by a teeming mob of blind beggars, hyperactive black nuns, undulating brothel floozies and Keystone Kops, all overacting madly without much cohesive or purposeful group movement, the action centers on Mr. and Mrs. Peachum (David Schramm and Randy Graff), venal exploiters of the miserable and oppressed who profit from their poverty, and their daughter Polly (beautiful, crystal-voiced Melissa Errico), who scandalizes them by marrying their archenemy Macheath, the lying, thieving, murdering leader of a gang of sewer rats who terrorize the slums. Macheath (immortalized by Louis Armstrong as “Mack the Knife”) is faithful to nobody, and before the exhausting evening ends, he must deal with both the law and the women who crave and betray him-a whore named Jenny (Betty Buckley), the policeman’s daughter Lucy Brown (Karen Ziemba), his own wife Polly, and the frustrated, neurotic Mrs. Peachum, who secretly wants him, too, but devotes her life to sending him to the gallows. The ladies are first-class. Betty Buckley has learned a lot about subtlety, reducing her usual shrieking to measured, beautifully articulated doses of sensuality on “Pirate Jenny.” Karen Ziemba’s “Barbara Song” is memorable. To assure a generous showcase for the talents of his diverse female stars, Mr. Hunt has even transposed Kurt Weill’s haunting “Surabaya Johnny” from the score of Happy End for Ms. Errico to sing to Macheath’s den of thieves. This great song is a staple in the repertoires of throaty nightclub singers everywhere, but in the context of The Threepenny Opera , it makes no sense at all. Why is the oversexed, newly married and deliriously happy Polly delivering a tragic, heartbreaking dirge in the underground hideout of a gang of thugs while dressed in an elegant white wedding gown?
Worse still, this production suffers from one fatal flaw-Jesse L. Martin, one of the original stars of Rent and a regular on Law & Order , in the pivotal role of Macheath. It’s a piece of disastrous miscasting that deals the show a mortal blow from which it never really recovers. I admire the determination to be politically color blind (if not correct), but equal-opportunity casting does not always serve the best interests of the material creatively. As a stud who reduces all women to puddles of palpitating lust, Macheath must be big, dangerous, sexy and irresistible. Lacking energy and charisma, Mr. Martin seems no more viable as a denizen of the London underworld than Sammy Davis Jr. He probably cuts a fine figure in the right role, but without any sign of direction, he seems tentative, weak and frankly lost. No match for the women circling around him in showstopping turns who overpower him vocally and dwarf him physically, Mr. Martin just disappears. Woefully, he’s less Mack the Knife and more Jelly’s Last Jam.
More stylized German Impressionism in the concept would have made this a better (and more coherent) interpretation of the Brecht-Weill oeuvre . Still, there is much to admire, and when I glanced at my watch in the third act, I was surprised to realize I had been sitting for three hours already without boredom. One of the abiding truths in Williamstown is that there is no time to yawn. The Threepenny Opera will be followed by John Guare’s Landscape of the Body with Lili Taylor, as well as new productions of plays by Dylan Thomas, Tom Stoppard and Henrik Ibsen, while the smaller Nikos stage will host the pre–New York tryout of a new play by A.R. Gurney; Nicholas Martin will direct Estelle Parsons in Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ Mother of Invention , starring Estelle Parsons, Bob Dishy and Matt McGrath; and the Nikos season will end in mid-August with a distinguished week-long cycle of all-repeat, all! -the great plays of Chekhov, with all-star casts yet to be announced. (Blythe Danner will be in one of them.) Are you getting the message? From the picture, is it clear why the Williamstown Theatre Festival is no longer just a summer happening for tourists, but a required destination circled on the maps of the cultured and wise.
Feel the Love
If you’re stuck in the city, one of the most sophisticated and musically refined cabaret engagements of the year awaits you at the Algonquin’s Oak Room, where the widely admired song stylist Sandy Stewart is appearing in an exclusive visit through Wednesday, July 9. Accompanying her unique interpretations of classic American songs with brainy and stylish arrangements that obviously reach from the heart is the sensational jazz pianist Bill Charlap. In case you no longer believe there is magic in the right gene pool, his father was the late Moose Charlap, the sensitive and talented Broadway composer whose shows included Mary Martin’s Peter Pan . In case you are new to the music scene or just blossomed from the pistil and stamen of a Casablanca lily, Sandy Stewart is Bill Charlap’s mother. Together, they make the kind of music you only hear about once every 10 years, if you’re lucky. At the Algonquin, where they opened Monday, June 30, I know devoted diehards who plan to hear it for 10 nights in a row.
In the days when quality singing wasn’t as rare as it is now, Sandy Stewart was a regular on television’s long-running Perry Como Show and toured with Benny Goodman. Now that her sons Bill and Tom, both musicians, are grown men with careers of their own, she has resumed her singing with a wonderful family CD that features sons Bill and Tom on piano and bass and husband George Triffon on trumpet and flugelhorn. Bill Charlap grew up immersed in jazz and show tunes and toured after his second college year with Gerry Mulligan, Tony Bennett and others. Stardust , his recent CD of Hoagy Carmichael songs, is one of the most heavenly jazz collections I’ve heard in the past decade. Fast becoming New York’s most critically acclaimed young pianist, he is already being touted as the one to take over where Bill Evans left off.
So why are they so special? Many of today’s singers concentrate on technique. The results are often technically proficient yet emotionally chilly. Ms. Stewart never distances herself from the listener. She can sharpen the blurred lines between imagery and reality on a standard like “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and reveal hidden elements in Cole Porter’s lyrics so boldly, bravely truthful they startle you into paying closer attention, even though you think you’ve heard the words before. Her certainty and confidence make fresh, pensive, underexposed ballads like Arthur Siegel’s insightful “Where Is Me?” shine with the luster of impeccable phrasing, while Moose Charlap’s devastating “I’ll Never Go There Anymore” always leaves me emotionally shattered. But this lady can also swing. Her time shifts on jazz evergreens like “It All Depends on You” and “I Concentrate on You” rise like syncopated smoke rings nourished by neon. And she still sings “My Coloring Book,” the hit song by Kander and Ebb which she introduced and kept on the Top 10 list for aeons, better than anyone else. Bill Charlap’s clean lines and gorgeous chords rock his mom’s voice as gently as cradles, and his improvisational riffs never fail to take my breath away. The fans who flock to Sandy Stewart’s engagements on her increasingly rare trips to New York from her home in Florida are enthralled by her voice. They’re here for the music, not the photo ops. Don’t expect hair the color of raspberry Jell-O, throat tattoos, pierced tongues or freak contestants from reality shows buried under bling-bling in tacky Jimmy Choos. So drift into the Oak Room with ease. There is some love going on here, and it rubs off, in spades.
Fun in the Sun
For pure fun in the sun, Legally Blonde 2 is a cloudless way to spend 95 air-conditioned minutes with the delectable Reese Witherspoon. From the waif in movies by Robert Mulligan and Robert Benton to a power player worth $15 million a picture, she’s surpassed the phonies to come a long way in a short time. For once, the overrated learns and talent earns. This time she’s back as Elle Woods, the blue-eyed, twinkle-nosed Bel-Air bimbo turned Harvard Law School graduate, engaged to her dreamboat law professor (Luke Wilson) and invading Washington, D.C. All fired up after discovering that the birth mother of her miniature Chihuahua, Bruiser, is being held captive in an animal-research lab, Elle heads for Capitol Hill to pass a law against using animal testing for cosmetics. “I taught Bruiser how to shop online,” she says. “I think I can handle Congress.” Dressed in her best pink, two-piece Jackie O. knockoffs, she tackles D.C. the Elle Woods way, appealing to dog lovers and fellow sorority sisters, but gets out-maneuvered by a brittle, deal-making Massachusetts Congresswoman (Sally Field). Silly, harmless fun, with candy-floss style the color of Pepto-Bismol. Without the enormous skills of Reese Witherspoon, who also acts as executive producer, you could send this one straight to Blockbuster. With her, it is a blockbuster. The cast includes fine work by Bob Newhart, Dana Ivey, Regina King and Jennifer Coolidge, the direction by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld is tongue-in-cheek yet respectful of women, the script by Kate Kondell is hilarious without being idiotic. And there is an old-fashioned message. In the end, it’s Elle who turns dirty politics upside-down in the style of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , addresses both houses of Congress, and proves what a difference one inspired Barbie doll can make appealing to a woman’s pocketbook in the land of the “free gift with purchase.” Yes, there will be more: Elle’s already got her eye on Hillary. At the end of Legally Blonde 2 , Elle’s got her eye on the White House.