Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny 

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Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's 1930 opera--an expansion of their first collaboration, the 1927 Mahagonny-Songspiel--was inspired by hedonistic, politically unstable Weimer Berlin. But their mythic metropolis Mahagonny, where men are made slaves to their carnal appetites in the name of individual freedom and where the only capital crime is not having money to pay for your pleasures, is an eerily apt metaphor for Western capitalist society on the eve of the millenium. Director David Alden and designers Paul Steinberg and Duane Schuler have provocatively updated the Lyric Opera's alternately hilarious and horrific Brecht-centennial staging to post-World War II Florida--a nightmarish, surrealisitcally kitschy world of Bermuda shorts and beehive hairdos, golf clubs, and machine guns. Where the whore Jenny sings the famous "Alabama Song" ("Oh, show us the way to the next Whiskey Bar"), she slinks around the stage in a black cocktail dress and platinum pageboy wig, and her lumberjack lover Jimmy arrives from Alaska in a floor-length white fur coat with a polar bear in tow. Alden's highly physical production (accessibly performed in Michael Feingold's English translation) revels in raunch but also conveys a sardonic distance from the apocalyptic self-indulgence it depicts, building inexorably to a Jonestown-style Kool-Aid communion. Brecht's biting, sometimes brutal humor comes through loud and clear, as does Weill's astringent score, with its dissonant lyricism, dance-hall bounciness, and borrowings from such diverse sources as barbershop singing and Bach chorales. A splendid chorus and orchestra under Sylvain Cambreling's baton bolster fine lead performances by Catherine Malfitano as Jenny, Kim Begley as Jimmy, and Felicity Palmer and Timothy Nolen as Mahagonny's crooked operators. Boasting two qualities crucial to the Brecht-Weill canon--a sense of danger and a sense of fun--Lyric's Mahagonny will offend some opera purists, but its adventurousness will excite many other viewers eager to claim the orchestra seats abandoned at intermission by stuffy subscribers (a Lyric tradition whenever the troupe dares to perform modern opera). Civic Opera House, Ardis Krainik Theatre, 20 N. Wacker, 312-332-2244. Through December 13: Fridays, 7:30 PM; Tuesday, December 1, 7:30PM; Sunday, December 13, 2 PM; no show Friday, December 11. $27-$125.

--Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dan Rest--Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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