A Ballad Amidst the Boxes

News Image Iconic 'Threepenny Opera' makes honest work out of corrupt capitalist systems in a rollicking musical theater production, Oct. 28 – Nov. 6 at Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance

By: Sarah Wedeking '24  Friday, October 14, 2022 01:22 PM

Joe Grisanzio plays Macheath and Madeline Burk plays Polly in the Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance production of Joe Grisanzio plays Macheath and Madeline Burk plays Polly in the Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance production of "The Threepenny Opera," Oct. 28 – Nov. 6. Photo by Maddi Whiting.

“The Threepenny Opera” comes to the stage of Muhlenberg College with an iconic score, powerful scenic design, and an anti-capitalistic diatribe. Director James Peck describes it as “‘The Godfather’ meets ‘The Office.’” 

“It has a cutting, hard-edged humor that I think is very appealing,” Peck says. Underneath this humor though, is an unflinching look at capitalist systems and violence.

The show follows the tension between crime gangs and the wealthy class in Victorian London. When Polly Peachum elopes with the ruthless gang leader Macheath, their marriage sets off a turf war with the elder Peachums for control of London's lucrative underground.

“The general aim of the show is to comment on these structures and effects that we experience from capitalism,” says Joe Grisanzio ’23, who plays Macheath. “And how all of these horrible things that these characters do throughout the show are a product of a system that's working against them.”

The show runs Oct. 28 through Nov. 6 in Muhlenberg's Empie Theatre. Tickets and information are available at search.catalog.blackboard.hadeslo.com/seeashow. The production is funded in part by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc., New York, N.Y.

“The Threepenny Opera” features a score by Kurt Weill, including the celebrated song “Mack the Knife,” and book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann. Only recently has Hauptmann been fully credited for her work on the book, lyrics, and translation of the piece. The first production debuted in 1928. 

The piece is adapted from John Gay's 18th Century ballad opera "The Beggar's Opera," which Hauptmann translated. 

Peck directed “The Beggar's Opera” at Muhlenberg, and musical director Vincent Trovato created new orchestrations for it. Both of them are working on “Threepenny” now. 

You can put a price tag on everything; even humans can be up for sale.

— Scenic Designer You-Shin Chen

The design of the production goes beyond the aesthetics of Victorian London.  Set designer You-Shin Chen designed the set as an Amazon warehouse in a distribution center, built out of industrial materials. 

“You can put a price tag on everything; even humans can be up for sale,” Chen says. “When the characters are onstage, they are the goods coming from these shipping crates that also act as the architecture of their world.”

Peck says that Chen’s design is particularly pertinent to the Lehigh Valley, where distribution centers are one of the fastest-growing industries. 

“It doesn't feel like we're just trying to make these broad societal statements about the show and about the world we live in,” Grisanzio says. “But we're saying, ‘Here's a direct example of the message of ‘Threepenny’ happening in real life and in real-time, right in our area.”

In addition to the set, the costumes comment on the themes of the production in bold, bright colors. Designer Rebecca Lustig says the costumes are inspired by the punk street fashion of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. 

“Both designers have taken street fashion and reinterpreted it into ‘high fashion,’” Lustig says. “Even rebel fashion becomes a commodity.”

The show will feature sound design by Angela Baughman and lighting design by Kat Zhou. Lauren Koranda ’23 is associate director, Samuel Antonio Reyes is choreographer, and Christine Zak ’23 is production stage manager. 

Allison Mintz ’23, who plays Mrs. Peachum, says she appreciates the irony of the production.

“It's so funny to think that things that we use on the show will even be ordered from Amazon,” Mintz says. “And as much as we can say we like to hate the structures and hate the way that people are treated, there are still things that we need to use, and it speaks to the fact that humans are kind of rotten, and that is something that comes up a lot in the show.” 

While the show speaks to these serious themes, Peck says, at its heart it’s a highly enjoyable evening of theatre — a raucous comedy with a jazzy, sophisticated score.

“I want people to enjoy themselves,” he says. “The play is very funny. The songs are great. And it’s a great story.”

Performances of “The Threepenny Opera” Oct. 28 through Nov. 6: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Performances are in the Empie Theatre, in the Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College. 

Tickets are $20 regular admission, $8 for youth, and $8 for Muhlenberg and LVAIC students, faculty, and staff. The production includes references to violence, including sexual assault. It is recommended for ages 17 and up. Tickets are available online at search.catalog.blackboard.hadeslo.com/seeashow or by phone at 484-664-3333.

About the Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance Department
Muhlenberg offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. The Princeton Review ranked Muhlenberg’s theatre program in the top twelve in the nation for eight years in a row, and Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theatre and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theatre and dance.

About Muhlenberg College
Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg is a highly selective, private liberal arts college offering baccalaureate and graduate programs. With an enrollment of nearly 2,000 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences; selected preprofessional programs, including accounting, business, education and public health; and progressive workforce-focused post-baccalaureate certificates and master’s degrees. Located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, approximately 90 miles west of New York City, Muhlenberg is a member of the Centennial Conference, competing in 23 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.