This Los Angeles Opera production, originally telecast on PBS, works hard to make the 1930 Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill opera accessible to contemporary American audiences. The strategies include using an English-language libretto (via Michael Feingold’s translation), throwing in kitschy pop cultural set design (retro Vegas signs and a jumbotron television screen pop up), stage movements that are closer to Bob Fosse razzle-dazzle than Brechtian theater, and star power from Broadway divas Patti Lupone and Audra McDonald.
However, these distractions fail to hide the basic problems inherent to the opera: an uncommonly cumbersome Weill score wrapped around a story that collapses beneath its lethal Marxist cynicism. It also creates an unfortunate circumstance where shtick is used to camouflage a lack of substance.
John Doyle’s stage direction unwisely allows the actors’ costumes to do the performing – Lupone’s 30s gangster moll get-up and McDonald’s erotically provocative are elaborate, but neither performer bothers to tap the unapologetic venality that drives their respective characters’ actions. Their inertia throws the show off-balance, putting a greater burden on Anthony Dean Griffey’s broad shoulders in his role as the doomed lumberjack Jimmy (renamed McIntyre for this production, from Brecht’s original Mahoney).
Mercifully, Griffey rises to the occasion, and his transformation from the happy-go-lucky seeker of good times to the friendless condemned prisoner of Mahagonny’s climate of greed is a tour-de-force of vibrant acting and rich singing. Ironically, when Griffey’s character dies, the show dies with him, and the production wraps up in one of the most inert denouements put on stage.