Review: Highwaymen, Hookers, and Thieves: The Threepenny Opera at Theo Ubique

The songs in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera remain standards: “Pirate Jenny,” “Tango Ballad,” and especially “Mack the Knife,” which is arguably the world’s most famous murder ballad, recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin to Frank Sinatra and Michael Bublé. But perhaps more than composer Weill’s music, it is playwright Brecht’s lyrics that resonate the most today. On Howard Street, Evanston’s Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre is offering a vibrant, must-see version of Brecht and Weill’s satirical folk opera in its intimacabaret space. Directed by Fred Anzevino and with music director Ryan Brewster at the helm, the show may run close to three hours, but it moves at a brisk pace thanks to the engaging cast and terrific performances.

The entire ensemble is outstanding from the “beggars” (especially Tyler Deloatch and Isabel Garcia) to the leads. Chamaya Moody as Polly Peachum and Megan Elk as Mrs. Peachum grace the stage with their operatic voices while Carl Herzog as the incorrigible womanizer Macheath, London’s most notorious criminal, and Michael Mejia as Tiger Brown, the police chief and Macheath’s best friend, are both dashing and charismatic presences.

Carl Herzog as Macheath. Photo by Time Stops Photography.

Other standouts include Thomas M. Shea as Mr. Peachum, the boss of the beggars who wants to have Macheath hanged for his various crimes. Shea lends a necessary gravitas to the role while Liz Bollar is a soulful Jenny, the prostitute who was once romantically involved with Macheath. But perhaps the evening’s most revelatory performance is Nathe Rowbotham as Lucy Brown, Tiger Brown’s daughter, whose poignant and mesmerizing interpretation of “Barbara Song” brought the house down. Rowbotham makes it their own.

The characters in Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny will do anything for a buck—or a pound or a yen, for that matter, to paraphrase Fred Kander and John Ebb’s “Money Song” from Cabaret––for Threepenny has much in common with the latter—in its themes, in its Weimar-era jazzy musical style, in its decadent ambiance. At its core, Threepenny is a socialist critique of capitalism, as the twin evils of bribery and corruption swirl around its amoral anti-hero. On the vigorous “Army Song,” for example, Macheath and Brown personify the fine line between criminality and graft. At one point, Brecht the playwright asks what’s worse: robbing a bank or founding one?

Adapted by Brecht and Weill along with Elisabeth Hauptmann, The Threepenny Opera is a Teutonic version of John Gay’s 18th century English ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, which opened in London in 1728. In an effort to lampoon Italian opera––popular in England at the time––Gay used some of the conventions of opera but he replaced its typical grand music with popular ballads and English, Irish, Scottish, and French folk tunes while borrowing elements from Parisian street theater. Rather than opulent settings, he set the story among the highwaymen, hookers, and thieves, hookers of working-class London. The notorious Macheath, for example, is a composite of real-life historical figures, including a French highwayman in England, Claude Duval, and the thief Jack Sheppard, who escaped from Newgate Prison.

Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera opened in 1928 at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Macheath and Polly Peachum are among the most famous characters in the theatrical world. It has spawned numerous film versions as well as Broadway productions. Macheath has been played by Tim Curry, Raul Julia, Sting, and Alan Cumming, to name just a few. Threepenny made Lotte Lenya, who was married to Weill, a star in arguably her most famous role of Polly Peachum and Polly’s haunting “Pirate Jenny.”

Like Macheath, the titular Jenny was inspired by a real person, an Irish-born London pickpocket named Jenny Diver. In the show, the song is typically a showstopper. It certainly was for Lenya and it is too for Theo’s Chamaya Moody. Dressed in a white wedding dress with laced-up white boots, Moody embodies the character of Jenny, as she imagines herself as a lowly maid in a run-down hotel turned pirate queen who plays out a fantasy in her head of getting revenge on her bosses and the customers—anyone who did her wrong or who treated her with disrespect—by gleefully ordering their destruction.

It’s the type of song that is open to various kinds of interpretation (in 1964 Nina Simone offered a politically incendiary version during the height of the civil rights era). When Lenya performed the song at a theater in New York, a young Bob Dylan was in the audience. Dylan was so blown away that hearing Lenya sing “Pirate Jenny” made Dylan realize the potential of popular songwriting, that pop songs could be more than just “moon in June” lyrics. He then composed his own revenge fantasy of sorts: feeling humiliated when a hotel clerk turned him away for appearing dirty and grimy, he wrote “When the Ship Comes In”: its lyrics echo Brecht’s as the singer’s foes are “drownded in the tide/And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.”

In its depiction of corruption and the long slog of poverty, Threepenny remains timeless and, unfortunately, still relevant: Mr. Peachum refers to the “parade of the poorest of the poor.” During the song “How to Survive,” the beggars display placards that read things like “I Gave My Right Eye for the Queen” or the anachronistic “Votes for Women,” along with complaints about being victims of “official” tyranny.

Brecht and Weill conclude with a happy ending as Macheath, rather than getting a well-deserved comeuppance, instead is granted the title of Knight of the Garter of Sussex (perhaps a sly reference to the current Duke and Duchess of Sussex?) and given an annual pension of £10,000. Macheath is pleased with the “tidy and nice” ending but as Mr. Peachum admits, in real life “the ending isn’t quite so fine.”

The Threepenny Opera is a saucy slice of subversive theater and as timely as ever.

The Threepenny Opera continues through April 30 at Theo Ubique, 721 Howard Street, Evanston. Tickets are $45-$55 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission.

For more information on this and other productions, see

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June Sawyers
June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.