If you prefer your musical satire driven by an anti-hero, then you know "The Ballad of Mack the Knife." The song opens German dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill's most durable collaboration, The Threepenny Opera, the still-vital 1928 work now onstage at the Lawrence Arts Center in a well-executed, enjoyable production.
Brecht and Weill took as their template an early 18th-century work called The Beggar's Opera. In their version, every street pauper needs a pimp. Spiked with the music of 1920s Berlin, the story takes place in early 19th-century England, around the time of Queen Victoria's coronation. At the center of this corrupt society is the notorious London criminal Captain MacHeath. He has no morals but lots of ambition, and — as portrayed here by the talented Kansas City actor and singer Seth Golay — no shortage of appeal.
In conflict with MacHeath is J.J. Peachum, the beggars' boss. He readies his charges to set up along the new queen's parade route and to look down-and-out with bogus sores, limps and disabilities. "If suffering is real," Peachum says, "no one believes it." (Veteran Kansas City actor Jim Korinke shows off his musical side in an adept performance.)
Peachum's alcoholic wife (a fine Sarah Young) unwittingly hooks up her daughter, Polly, with MacHeath. Among other things, Mack is known for his many "marriages," and so he elopes with Polly in a questionable ceremony. (Breanna Pine brings a beautiful voice and a charming vulnerability to a Polly who can't quite mask her hardness.) Peachum solicits police help but gets mixed results from Chief Jackie "Tiger" Brown (expertly portrayed by the show's director, Ric Averill), an old army buddy of MacHeath's. Also central is Jenny, the brothel's madame (the strong Kitty Steffens) and an old flame of MacHeath's.
The show is big. Averill marshals 18 cast members playing more than 30 characters — beggars, thieves, prostitutes, police, a reverend and "businessmen" — plus the 12-member Free State Liberation Orchestra (conducted by Carlos Espinosa), playing 20 instruments and accompanying 24 songs. It's also thematically rich and musically rewarding. Its three hours never drag (there are two intermissions) but instead keep us engaged with an underlying — and relevant — social commentary.