Dick Clark must chuckle himself to sleep at the memory. Never mind, he once advised Bobby Darin, that the 1959 single “Mack the Knife” held such cool promise amid its edgy lyrics and brassy pop-swing instrumentals. The original was lifted from an opera, see, which meant that any self-respecting teen audience would promptly tune it out. Dick was right—but not before the entry snagged Billboard's top spot for nine weeks, sold about a gajillion copies, won Darin a Song of the Year Grammy and became a huge fave inside the Kennedy White House.
Late word also had Dick betting on the old U.S.S.R.'s hockey team at Lake Placid.
Bertolt Brecht, who with Kurt Weill co-wrote The Threepenny Opera (the piece from which the song is taken), didn't quite live to hear Darin's entry. If he had, he'd probably have wondered what the hell all the bourgeoisie fuss was about. The tune's treatment, after all, puts the sociopathic Macheath—a murderer, rapist, robber, arsonist and philanderer—on a big pedestal, and that would have run head-on into Brecht's strongly Marxist leanings. In fact, Brecht may have felt the same about San Diego Repertory Theatre's current take on his play. Like the Darin song, the Rep show is slick, smart, funny, eminently economical and a delight to the ears (I'd go to Mars if it meant hearing the beautiful Amy Ashworth Biedel sing). In short, it's everything Brecht would mistrust.
Macheath (Jeffrey Meek) is all the things the song says he is, and he'll come decidedly within the 11th hour of paying the ultimate price for his misdeeds. His capture is marked by a story of greed, graft, a black-market hierarchy and the worst in commercial competition. “First the feeding,” Brecht writes, “then the moral code,” a scathing indictment of corporate profiteers whose sense of charity begins and ends on the 42nd floor.
It sounds familiar against our current recession and the business community's wholesale crimes against humanity—but this show never really betrays the vitality of the human will Brecht intended, much less his socialist message. Watch Macheath as he's about to be apprehended; Meek handles his knife like a caulking tool instead of Macheath's ticket to freedom, placidly discarding it onto the stage without a trace of frustration. To boot, Meek is far too good-looking for the part, as are so many other players in theirs (as Celia Peachum, San Diego treasure Leigh Scarritt manages to capture the character's predominantly homely side; it's all in the eyebrows).
Director Sam Woodhouse spruced this show to a T, perhaps reasoning that an inviting setting would net a greater share of Brechtian sympathies. In so doing, he's washed away the political incorrectness. Meek's sculpted face, Biedel's gorgeous legs and the preppy music are all well and fine—but instead of coloring Brecht's booming voice, they've tamed it. After all: Since when did Jean-Paul Marat, who garnered his insurrectionist reputation in the sewers of Paris, call his meetings to order in a suit and tie? This review is based on a March 15 performance. It runs through March 29 at The Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza. $39-$44. 619-544-1000, www.sdrep.org.Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.