Minneapolis-based Frank Theatre has always blazed its own trail, despite operating on a shoestring.
To the surprise and delight of many fans, the theater company is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and it is doing it in style with a blowout production of "The Threepenny Opera." The show opens tonight at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis and plays weekends through May 4.
The theater's essence is captured in the song "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" added as an afterthought by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil just hours before the opening of the play in 1928. When they collaborated on the tune, they likely had no idea they were crafting what would become one of the world's most covered songs.
"Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear," sang local vocal legend Vern Sutton said, "And he keeps it out of sight."
Sutton, who has been working on the song in Frank Theatre's crowded rehearsal room in south Minneapolis, said it is an unusual number, but one that has its charms.
"Most people think it's a really jolly song," he said. "It's an evil, awful song, and so it's really fun to sing."
For 25 years, the company has swirled around artistic director Wendy Knox, just as the cast of "Threepenny Opera" swirls around her in the rehearsal room. Knox is a tall, imposing figure who is so bluntly friendly and welcoming that people tend to do things for her.
She admits to enjoying the challenge of presenting Brecht, even though the theater has done a stream of his shows over the years.
"So yeah, Bert and I are kind of tight," she says with a grin.
Knox directed "Threepenny Opera" in 1999 to celebrate the company's 10th anniversary. Then the cast jumped into Brecht's murderous satire set in the Victorian London's criminal underworld.
"We didn't know what we were doing," Knox said. "Didn't have a clue. I had never directed a musical before. I'm like, 'What?'"
But that show was a huge success. Six members of the cast and crew are back for the new production.
"Spencer the stage manager said in one of the early rehearsals he leaned over and said, 'the show was good the first time, but this time it's going to be 15 years better.'"
Frank Theatre's success is built on the way Knox attracts the cream of local talent to work with her.
Actor Gary Briggle has appeared in several shows and plays one of the leads in the opera. Like many of the actors at the theater, he is a Knox fan.
"She has a very 'iron hand in a velvet glove' kind of approach to the thing," he said during a break in the rehearsal. "You know, very inclusive in collaboration."
Briggle calls "Threepenny Opera" his favorite piece of musical theatre. While it's filled with appalling characters — murderers, thieves, rapists, prostitutes and corrupt officials — he believes audiences recognize parts of themselves in the show.
Still, Briggle said, the opera shouldn't be a good fit for the stage.
"It defies all logic, it's too long, it's too rambling, it's too random," he said. "But somehow it never ceases to surprise you, I think, in the theater as an actor and as an audience member."
Briggle points to Kurt Weil's score as one reason for the production's longevity.
Bradley Greenwald who plays Macheath — a suavely foul-mouthed bully — said it is tough for a singer. Brecht's words, he said, are as horrifying as Weil's music is beautiful.
"You get drawn in by the melody of the song and you think it's a beautiful song and you stop listening to the lyric," Greenwald said. "So the challenge has been how to bring Brecht's lyric on an even presence with the melody, so you don't stop listening to the world and just enjoy the music."
Although it has been nearly 90 years since the "Threepenny Opera" was first performed in Berlin, Knox said it is still relevant, even in an age of too-big-to-fail businesses.
For Knox, that Frank Theatre is still going after 25 years is kind of a miracle. She's spent more than two decades running a theatre company out of her house on almost no money.
"You know, when you are doing work that's both politically and artistically edgy, it's tough to get a lot of money to sit on," she said. "But while that has been a frustration and kind of a curse in some ways, it's also why we've been around for 25 years."