Theatre review: this Beggar’s Opera is more style than substance

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There are some beautifully realized visual moments in the Seven Tyrants production of Beggar’s Opera, but there is so much going on that its story gets lost.

Based on John Gay’s classic ballad opera from 1728, audiences may be more familiar with the story from the more populist The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht or perhaps through the song “Mack the Knife” popularized for modern audiences by Frank Sinatra (which makes an appearance in this new version).

Keeping to the tradition of a ballad opera which forgoes the use of recitative, David Newham has adapted Gay’s original script to tell its story of the thief Macheath and his escape from execution at the hands of crime boss Mr Peachum.

Through a series of what Newham calls “fantasias”, the story unfolds in scenes punctuated by Daniel Deorksen’s original musical score, Brenda Cameron’s wild costumes, Catherine Burnett’s very ambitious choreography and some equally ambitious lighting from Newham.

More flash than substance at times though, the production bogs down into a mish-mash of styles that was reminiscent of everything from Rent to Little Shop, Rocky Horror and just about every Baz Luhrmann movie ever made.  It is in that lack of focus that, while it could at times dazzle, ultimately got in the way of the story.

A scene from the Seven Tyrants production of Beggar's Opera.  Photo by David Newham.
Tallulah Winkelman and Nick Fontaine in the Seven Tyrants production of Beggar’s Opera. Photo by David Newham.

Despite some of the visual treats that Newham creates there is a surprisingly linear feel to his staging. Burnett’s choreography helps to a certain degree although at times it tended, along with some of the quirkiness in Newham’s direction, towards distraction.

The large cast does some decent work here although it was tough, even with his great voice, to buy Nick Fontaine as the rogue Macheath.  Many of the others fall victim to everything going on around them. The real stars, beyond the visuals, come from the small band (Eugene Burton, Vern Shewchuk, Daniel Deorksen and Phyllis Ho).

Newham and Deorksen are onto something here, but in its current form it is more style over substance and a good reminder that story really is the thing.

2 1/2 of 5 StarsBeggar’s Opera

Based on the opera by John Gay.  Adapted and directed by David Newham.  Music composed and directed by Daniel Deorksen.  On stage at Performance Works on Granville Island through May 5, 2013.  Visit for tickets and information.

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