First Nighter: London Currently Serving Multi-Star Takes on "The Threepenny Opera," "Funny Girl," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hobson's Choice"

London--Bertolt Brecht would likely approve of The Threepenny Opera as Rufus Norris directs it, Imogen Knight choreographs it, Vicki Mortimer designs it and Rory Kinnear leads the confrontational cast as Captain Macheath, known to you as Mack the Knife. The commanding Kinnear sings with relentless conviction in a Hitler mustache on a round face that looks as if it were drawn by Otto Dix.

There's no place for theatrical finery in this production at the National's looming Olivier. The building's walls are exposed, undoubtedly as a metaphor for Brecht's intention to flaunt the uncivilized nature of civilization. The actors, who cluster together downstage at the start along with the eight oom-pah-pah-prone musicians (under conductor David Shrubsole), face the audience accusatorially as they'll continue to do singly and in angry groups. They'll also push and pull set pieces as needed.

In the Simon Stephens adaptation of the volatile Brecht-Kurt Weill-Elisabeth Hauptmann work, everyone is nasty and tawdry, and that includes Hayden Gwynne in a flashy red dress as Mrs. Peachum, Nick Holder (sometimes wearing a Lulu wig) as Mr. Peachum, Rosalie Craig as a stern and determined Polly Peachum, George Ikediashi as the Narrator and Jamie Beddard, who spends much time in a mechanized wheel through to the curtain call.

This is a version where death is often reduced to humor. A couple of Macheath's victims pull tattered red strings out of their Mortimer costumes to simulate blood gushing from knife wounds.

It should also be noted that although this Threepenny Opera--announced at the get-go as "cheap" but blessedly devoid of standard stage "moralizing"--was written as a screed against everything falling apart in 1920s Weimar Republic Germany. Therefore, it invites charges as being dated. Yet, it brings up, for one thing, the subject of failing banks and thus has a scarily contemporary ring. So, by the way, does the presentation of a self-impressed leader who gets away with promoting violence.
Natasha J. Barnes! You don't know the name, and given the vagaries of show business, you may or may not hear it again. What can be said without question is that in the future you deserve to hear it plenty. Who is Natasha J. Barnes? Natasha J. Barnes is the person currently replacing the indisposed Sheridan Smith in the Funny Girl revival at the Savoy, and what a replacement she is.

Pauline Kael once wrote that it takes a star to play a star, and she was right. Barbra Streisand was a star already on her way when she was picked to play Fanny Brice in the musicalized biography, and now Barnes--a star in the making--has taken on the role and made it her own,

On the short side and only slightly pudgy, she's in command of the Brice sense of humor, which was born of a deep-seated uncertainty about her looks. Her singing is not only bold and forthright, but underlying it is ceaseless emotional thought. When in "I'm the Greatest Star" Brice boasts about having 36 expressions, Barnes proves to have two or three times as many as that. The introspection she brings to the now Robert Merrill-Jule Styne standard "People" is unprecedented, and she turns "Don't Rain on My Parade" into its own three-act play.

The Michael Mayer production is sumptuous but not on the biggest budget imaginable. It's brimming with lots of swell ideas and beautiful costumes on a cast that has Darius Campbell as a suave and yet down-to-earth Nicky Arnstein, Joel Montague as a sincere and loyal Eddie Ryan and Marilyn Cutts as an understandingly tough Mrs. Brice.

According to a box office informant, Sheridan Smith is scheduled to return in early-ish July, and she's reportedly strong in the role, but if ticket buyers continue to see replacement Barnes, they can consider themselves enormously lucky.

A few years back there was talk of a New York City revival. If those producers are still thinking about one and willing to risk it, they'd be advised to look at Barnes. After all, Cynthia Erivo, an unknown British performer, came to Broadway this just-ended season and won a Tony for her performance in The Color Purple. Why not Natasha J. Barnes repeating the journey as funny girl Fanny Brice in a forthcoming season?
The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company has an elegant Romeo and Juliet on offer at the Garrick, starring in the title roles Richard Madden and Lily James, whom Branagh directed in the most recent live-action Cinderella. The Cinderella lovers are only star-crossed for a while, but Romeo and his Juliet remain star-crossed. As lustily played by Madden and James, however, they're not at all quiet about it.

Amid the symmetrical grey columns and wide stairs of Christopher Oram's imperial set, they hold back no emotion, nor do any members of the ensemble, among them Derek Jacobi as an older-than-usual and angrily eloquent Mercutio, Marisa Berenson as a mournful Lady Capulet, Meera Syal as an extremely forthright Nurse and Samuel Valentine as a younger-than-usual, red-haired Friar Laurence. Branagh and now-frequent collaborator Rob Ashford directed and apparently agreed on placing the William Shakespeare favorite in a Verona recovering from World War II in the 1950s. This means that Berenson can wear a costume that looks as if her grandmother Elsa Schiaparelli might have designed it. (N.B.: The production is being screened in the States on July 7. Be sure to check local listings.)
Harold Brighouse's Hobson's Choice, at the Vaudeville, is now 101 years old and still as entertaining as it ever was when tyrannical Henry Horatio Hobson (Martin Shaw in a marvelous characterization) gradually loses his overbearing manner to his no-nonsense daughter Maggie (Naomi Frederick) who's taken master boot maker Willie Mossop (Bryan Dick) under her guidance. Audiences always love a worm-turns tale, and this is one of the best. Jonathan Church directed the production, which unfolds on a clever Simon Higlett set and in Simon Higlett costumes where the size of bustles becomes an amusing issue. The wonderful thing about Hobson's Choice, with its large-ish accomplished cast, is that it's as well made as the hardly kinky boots Willie Mossop crafts that become the root of his eventual broad and commercial reputation. Yes, these boots are made for gawking.