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IN ANY production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera," capturing the cynicism may be the easy part. Having Kurt Weill's biting, dissonant songs gets you half way there. The rest of the trip is courtesy of Brecht's casually morose lyrics.

What may be harder in "The Threepenny Opera" is getting the sense of joy with which these supposedly miserable characters go about singing their sad songs and mouthing their bitter complaints against a society that has them up against the wall.

How do you show their delight in decadance, their almost cheery acceptance of a code of faithlessness? And more importantly, how do you do these things without turning the whole spectacle into an American musical theater romp?

"How" is ably demonstrated by the Irish Classical Theatre Co.'s production of Brecht's 1928 mock -- and mocking -- opera. It opened Thursday night in the Andrews Theatre, and after a slow start, fell into a nice lurching rhythm that held Brecht's caustic-to-comic shuffle in fine balance.

If you leave out some excessive wiggling and slithering by the brothel girls in the first act, Director Kevin McHugh's interpretation is delightfully unmannered and yet both very funny and edgy. There's no mugging here, no milking of lines. And no caricatures. Just the host of veneer-deep figures that Brecht wrote into the play. The staginess and posing that comes at a number of points -- for instance, the comically stilted gestures when Polly and Mac-Heath say goodbye -- work to perfection.

Set sometime in the 1920 or '30s in London, the play moves bumpily along, in short stretches of dialogue liberally interrupted by song, telling the tale of MacHeath (Paul Todaro), a gangster with an eye for the ladies, and Polly (Dawn Wollacott).

Polly happens to be the daughter of J.J. Peachum (Tim Newell), a businessman who, for a hefty commission, outfits beggars and trains them "to move the hearts of men" so that they will willingly part with their money. Despite his many crimes, MacHeath is immune to the law because of his friendship with the chief of police, Tiger Brown (Neil Garvey).

That immunity soon comes to an ends. He marries Polly, and Peachum and his wife (Josephine Hogan) plot to get rid of this unwanted son-in-law by doing an end run around Tiger Brown. Double-crossed by Jenny (Kelly Meg Brennan), his one-time lover, MacHeath is condemned to hang.

But then the story isn't as important as how it it told. McHugh has no easy task here. No problem with the acting; it is solid throughout. Todaro's MacHeath is a big-voiced, big-gestured character with all sorts of subtle undertones of movement and facial expression. Garvey gives his part all sorts of comic nuances that the role probably never saw before. And Hogan makes a crackling good Mrs. Peachum.

But Hogan, like others in the cast, is a bit shaky in the singing department. You can, as Brecht suggested, there is a way of "speaking-against-the-music," but it isn't happening with Hogan and others. Musically, the cast is all over the place. On the one hand there's Wollacott's squeaky-voiced Polly, a vocal instrument always in real danger of being wiped out by the robust lungs of Todaro. And then there is Brennan with a marvelously expressive voice that moves with staggering facility from a near-operatic range to the flat speech-song required by Weill. Her Pirate Jenny is chilling. Leah Russo as Lucy Brown is another great voice, delightfully lyrical with just the right amount of "impurities."

This sounds like a musical problem -- merely a case of one good voice, another not so good voice. But with Brecht it becomes immediately a theatrical problem. Take the Prologue. With his lean, taut face, Jamie Moses looks like the perfect Street Singer for "Ballad of Mack the Knife." But his singing just doesn't have the emotional charge needed to set the stage for what is to come. Not a scintillating "Mack the Knife."

Luckily, there was Michael Hake, playing the Yamaha up in one corner of the theater, helping to hold the voices together even when badly mismatched.

But it was McHugh, finally, who was able to fit all the disparate pieces together. He has come up with an exceptional theatrical experience.

The Threepenny Opera

Rating: ****
Bertolt Brecht's sharp-edged parody featuring Paul Todaro, Dawn Wollacott, Kelly Meg Brennan, Tim Newell, Leah Russo and Neil Garvey.

Performances continue Thurs. and Fri. at 7:30, Sat. at 3 and 7:30, and Sun. at 2, through Oct. 17, except for Curtain Up! next Fri. at 8:30, at Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St. (853-4282).

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