Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Appropriate (2NDSTAGE)

 


By Harry Forbes

Three siblings arrive at a dilapidated Arkansas plantation after their father's death to settle his estate, and long festering familial issues arise, further complicated by the discovery of some disturbing and highly charged artifacts found in the house. Such is the premise of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ provocative, absorbing and frequently very funny play, first seen at the Signature Theater Company in 2014. A spectacular riff on the great family dramas of the stage, like “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “August: Osage County,” Jacobs-Jenkins turns the genre on its ear and makes the dysfunction in those earlier works seem mere child's play.


Sarah Paulson, long absent from the stage while delivering memorable performances on TV series like “American Horror Story,” plays eldest sibling Toni. Now divorced, she had been the principal caregiver for the father during his lengthy decline, after years of propping up her deeply troubled teenage son Rhys (Graham Campell) and earlier, her ne’er-do-well, now estranged brother Franz (Michael Esper).


The latter has now shown up unexpectedly with his New Agey girlfriend River (Elle Fanning, very fine in her Broadway debut). Seemingly unflappable brother Bo (Corey Stoll) later arrives from New York with his wife Rachael (Natalie Gold), and precocious young daughter Cassidy (Alyssa Emily Marvin) and son Ainsley (Lincoln Cohen at my performance). 


The play’s title can be taken both as an adjective (as in suitable) and verb (as in take). Was the late patriarch a racist, as the discovery of the aforementioned artifacts, not to mention Jewish daughter-in-law Rachael's assertions at one point, suggest? Or if he was casually racist in a manner that was considered "acceptable" for an earlier generation? But then, what of those artifacts? No matter how they happened to be in the house, the family seems to have no compunctions about appropriating them for their monetary value, despite their heinous origins? 


Toni has become bossy and embittered from years of toiling on behalf of her ailing father, and Paulson makes an impressive meal of the role, giving a dynamic and commanding performance. But all the performances are spot-on perfect, and Jacobs-Jenkins has given each character at least one, if not several, juicy moments. 


The highly atmospheric set is designed by the multidisciplinary collective known as dots, with Jane Cox’s lighting complimenting it beautifully. Bray Poor and Will Pickens’ sound design adds mightily to the visuals including the deafening roar of cicadas which fill the theater during scene changes. In fact, all three elements combine for a rather spectacular coup de theatre during the play’s climax.


Lila Neugebauer’s direction is ever taut and attuned to all the shifting nuances of Jacobs-Jenkins’ text with its unfailingly funny, intelligent and razor sharp dialogue.


The play runs a generoous 2 hours and 40 minutes, and grips you throughout. Highly recommended.


(The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street; 2ST.com; through March 3)


Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Michael Esper, Corey Stoll, Sarah Paulson

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch (The Music Box)


By Harry Forbes

If there were any doubts about the wisdom of reviving Ossie Davis’ 1961 play, as opposed to "Purlie," the excellent 1970 musical adaptation, especially as the current production stars such a fine singing actor as Leslie Odom, Jr., they are quickly dispelled from the show’s first joyful and funny moments. 


For the straight version proves a very worthy property in its own right, and doesn’t even seem at all dated as many other comedies of this vintage might. Odom is completely commanding in his bravura performance as a traveling preacher trying to secure the local church Old Bethel, and throw off the yoke of the blithely bigoted Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee who exploits the black workers on his Georgia plantation.


Purlie hatches a scheme to have Lutiebelle, an innocent country girl, impersonate his long-lost cousin who was rightly owed an inheritance of $500. Lutiebelle is played by the wondrous Kara Young, who impresses mightily yet again after her outstanding comedic and dramatic turns in “Clyde’s” and “Cost of Living.” 


Odom and Young’s performances are part of an impeccably cast ensemble: Billy Eugene Jones is his obsequious brother Gitlow with Heather Alicia Simms as Gitlow’s sensible wife Missy; Jay O. Sanders is the bigoted Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, with Noah Robbins his meek but enlightened son Charlie, and Vanessa Bell Calloway the sassy servant who has raised Charlie on the right racial path. The performances are all gems.


Kenny Leon’s direction is fast-paced and masterfully balances the hilarious comedy with the underlying serious themes (unfortunately still relevant after all these decades). The production credits are all first-rate, including Derek McLane’s set which serves as Purlie’s shack, the village commissary, and then wondrously transforms into a church in the final scene. Emilio Sosa’s character perfect costumes, Adam Honoré’s atmospheric lighting, and Peter Fitzgerald’s well balanced sound design. 


I’ll be anxious to rewatch the movie version titled “Gone Are the Days,” with many of the original cast including Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, which used to be a TV staple, but I did relisten to the musical’s cast album. Peter Udell’s lyrics and Gary Geld’s tunes capture the play’s characters and themes exceedingly well.


Even so, the current revival, sans musical numbers, comes across just as exuberant, heartwarming and hilarious. Highly recommended, but hurry, as the revival closes this weekend.


(The Music Box, 239 West 45th Street; PurlieVictorious.com, Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through February 4) 


Photo by Marc J. Franklin: Leslie Odom, Jr. & Kara Young

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Gardens of Anuncia (Lincoln Center Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Composer Michael John LaChiusa honors his frequent collaborator, director/choreographer Graciela Daniele, with a loving portrait of the present day Daniele -- here named Anuncia, and winningly played by Priscilla Lopez -- looking back on her formative years in Peron-era Buenos Aires, where she was raised by her mother, aunt, and salty grandmother. 


These three -- Mami, Tía, and Granmama -- are, as you would expect, beautifully embodied by Eden Espinosa, Andréa Burns, and Mary Testa. We learn that Mami’s husband left her when Anuncia was six, and Grannmama, after early disillusionment, has been separated from her husband for many years, though he does make occasional visits and young Anuncia adores him. But otherwise, Anuncia was raised in an all-female household. 


Mami sees to it that Anuncia is enrolled in ballet class principally because of her daughter’s flat feet, but this sets Anuncia/Graciela on her path to becoming a professional dancer. To earn money for the family, Mami works in a government job in spite of her anti-Peronist political views and the potential danger of her position, a situation that does, in fact, lead to the most dramatic point in the narrative.


Besides the stellar work of the women here, various male roles are taken by Enrique Acevedo and Tally Sessions. The former plays on the grandfather and, briefly, the abusive husband/father, while the latter shines in two whimsical present day sequences wherein Anuncia is visited in her garden by a friendly deer with whom she even dances, and later, the deer’s cynical brother. 


The basic narrative is frankly not dissimilar from other stories we’ve seen of an adolescent blossoming as he/she comes to maturity, but Daniele's particular story is not without interest. Kayln West plays the young Anuncia well even though, as written, certain aspects of the character’s immaturity are exasperating and vexing. 


LaChiusa’s tango-flavored score falls pleasantly on the ear, but it’s difficult to assess the songs, beyond the fact that they are always apt and, of course, bear LaChiusa’s accomplished stamp. And though this is a small scale, almost chamber work, focusing, as it does, on a limited section of Daniele’s truly fascinating life, I found myself wanting a fuller story.


The show was originally developed and produced at the Old Globe. For the record, this is the fifth collaboration between LaChiusa and Daniele at Lincoln Center Theater, following "Hello Again" (1994), "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" (1995), "Marie Christine" (1999), and "Bernarda Alba" (2006).


This is not primarily a dancing show, though West has some balletic moments, and Espinoza has a bracing tango number. But, in the authoritative hands of director/choreographer Daniele (and co-choreographer Alex Sanchez) the overall staging is very fluid


Michael Starobin’s orchestrations under the musical direction of  Deborah Abramson put LaChiusa’s score in the best light. And Mark Wendland’s simple but evocative settings, Toni-Leslie James’ period costumes, the  lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and Drew Levy’s tasteful sound design are all state-of-the-art.


(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street; Telecharge.com; through December 31)


Photo by Julieta Cervantes: (l.-r.) Eden Espinosa, Kalyn West, Mary Testa and Andréa Burns.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Monty Python’s Spamalot (St. James Theatre)


By Harry Forbes


On the face of it, one might think it rather too soon for a return of Eric Idle and John Du Pre’s musical version of the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” But then you remember that the original Tony Award-winning Best Musical production was indeed nearly 20 years ago. That fondly-recalled 2005 premiere production with Tim Curry, Hank Araiza, David Hyde Pierce, and Christian Borle, directed by Mike Nichols no less, might have seemed hard to match.


But I’m happy to report that the current mounting, sharply directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, lives up to all the felicities of the original. The script seems to be only mildly tweaked with a few contemporary references, and I count that as a good thing. Even though times have changed, and not all the gags seem as fresh as before, they generally hold up just fine. 


The basic narrative, as you may recall, involves King Arthur (versatile James Monroe Iglehart) and his trusty companion Patsy (Christopher Fitzgerald), and knights Sir Robin (Michael Urie), Sir Lancelot (Taran Killam), Sir Dennis Galahad (Nik Walker) on a comical quest to find the Holy Grail. But the show develops into a multi-faceted spoof of Broadway musicals and all manner of popular entertainment. 


This fine 2023 cast gets into the Monty Python spirit with nearly the same authenticity as the original crew who were perhaps more organically steeped in the Python ethos.  And those showstopping songs still delight and tickle the funny bone. The outrageous “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”-- as the lyric goes “if you haven’t any Jews” -- is a stitch in Urie’s expertly comedic hands, and Rhodes’ choreography with its homage to “Fiddler on the Roof” -- is highly inventive. The infectious music hall earworm “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” charmingly delivered by the delightful Fitzgerald, which opens the second act, is embraced by the audience like an old friend. Fitzgerald has some other pearly moments as he dejectedly hears King Arthur bemoans “I’m All Alone,” with nary a nod to steadfast Patsy.


Adding significantly to the fun is Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer as the Lady of the Lake who helps King Arthur on his quest. Her character is comically fashioned as an over-the-top Vegas lounge singer with every vocal cliche in the book. Sara Ramirez was great in 2005, but Kritzer makes the part her own.


Her first act duet with Walker, “The Song That Goes Like This” wherein they wring every ounce of humor out of the overwrought Broadway ballad prototype, and her second act “Diva’s Lament,” wherein she bemoans her suddenly diminished role, stops the show again. Ethan Slater, so delightful in “Spongebob Squarepants” several seasons back, again proves his comic chops in an impressive variety of roles including the narrating Historian, Not Dead Fred, and the lovelorn Prince Herbert. HIs scenes with Killam’s excellent Lancelot, who suddenly discovers his queerness, are another highlight.


Production values are all first rate, including Paul Tate DePoo III’s sets and projections, Jen Caprio’s costumes, Cory Pattak’s lighting, Kai Harada and Haley Parcher’s sound, and Tom Watson’s hair and wigs. Music Director John Bell conducts 


The audience at my performance had a rollicking good time, and if you see it, I think you’ll happily follow the show’s exhortation to “Find Your Grail.”


(St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street; SpamalotTheMusical.com; phone)


Photo by  Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman: (L to R) Michael Urie, Nik Walker, James Monroe Iglehart, Christopher Fitzgerald, Jimmy Smagula, Taran Killam

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

I Can Get It For You Wholesale (Classic Stage Company)


By Harry Forbes

Like many today, I know this musical adaptation of Jerome Weidman’s 1937 novel primarily from the 1962 cast album which features Barbra Streisand’s breakout role as harried secretary Miss Marmelstein. 


I did see a 1991 revival at the American Jewish Theatre, a production rather strangely ignored in CSC’s otherwise comprehensive timeline of the property from novel onwards, including a 1951 film with Susan Hayward, in a bit of gender swapping, as the protagonist. The Off-Broadway revival was good, as I recall, but I can’t say I remember much about it. And, in any case, the current mounting -- adapted by the playwright’s son, John Weidman, and cannily directed by Trip Cullman -- bears all the classy hallmarks of a major revival, one that I believe is every bit as worthy of a Broadway transfer as such recent shows as, say, “Harmony” and “Kimberly Akimbo.”  


Harold Rome’s score -- which always struck me as nothing special on the album -- comes through much more definitively here. Numbers that register as merely serviceable on the cast album come to vibrant life.


Against the backdrop of the Jewish milieu of the 1930s garment district, the story charts the ruthless rise of shipping clerk Harry Bogen (spectacularly embodied by Santino Fontana) who connives his way to dubious success, first by, as a strikebreaker, creating a delivery company during a major work stoppage, to creating his own dress company, Apex Modes, Inc., with the help of gullible partners, dress designer Meyer Bushkin (Adam Chanler-Berat) and seasoned salesman Teddy Asch (Greg Hildreth), all the while supported by his loving mother (Judy Kuhn) and selfless girlfriend (Rebecca Naomi Jones). 


The role of Harry, originated by Elliot Gould, plays to all of Fontana’s strengths as both solid dramatic actor and one of our top musical theater performers. His vocals are powerful, and he plays Harry’s ruthless charm to the hilt. He never sidesteps the reprehensible aspects of the character, a real bastard who makes other Broadway antiheroes like “Pal Joey” look like saints by comparison. The others are uniformly superb, including the great Kuhn in Lillian Roth’s original role. She’s the very picture of motherly devotion, and her voice is as lustrous as ever. 


Jones is lovely and believable as the devoted Ruthie, and all her numbers are standouts including her angry delivery of “On My Way to Love” with Fontana. Joy Woods plays Harry’s sultry showgirl mistress with requisite glamor and sex appeal. 




Julia Lester -- so memorable as Little Red Ridinghood in last season’s “Into the Woods” revival -- socks over her “Miss Marmelstein” number with showstopping charisma and avoids all the familiar Streisand inflections of the song to make it her very own. 


As Harry’s duped partners, Hildreth and Chanler-Berat are outstanding, and beyond the more serious aspects of their roles, each have some delightfully light musical moments: Hildreth, in duet with Woods, on “What’s In It For Me?” and Chanler-Berat on “Have I Told You Lately?” with the marvelously empathetic Sarah Steele as Meyer’s supportive wife. Also outstanding are Adam Grupper as factory manager Pulvermacher and Eddie Cooper as Harry’s original business partner Tootsie.


Cullman uses the CSC space with great dexterity and his staging has real dramatic momentum, seamlessly integrated with Ellenore Scott’s balletic choreography featuring some hora-inspired moves to match Rome’s Jewish inflected score, weaving among the versatile table motif of Mark Wendland’s scenic design. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are period perfect. 


Music Director Jacinth Greywoode’s chamber orchestrations and David Chase’s arrangements of the score are highly satisfying, and I didn’t miss the lusher Broadway charts one bit. 


(CSC, 136 East 13 Street; 212-677-4210 or classicstage.org; through December 17)


Photos by Julieta Cervantes:


Top: (l.-r.) Rebecca Naomi Jones and Santino Fontana 


Below: Julia Lester

Friday, November 10, 2023

The Frogs (MasterVoices)


By Harry Forbes

Once again, conductor/director Ted Sperling and his MasterVoices forces, have triumphed with a Sondheim work, after their winning “Anyone Can Whistle” last year. “The Frogs” is an anomaly in Sondheim’s catalog, hardly a traditional musical, but more a choral piece, or so it was when first performed at Yale in 1974, and later recorded by Nonesuch, though the work was given more traditional structure in its 2004 production by Lincoln Center Theater. 


Nathan Lane, who starred in that Lincoln Center mounting, and hosted the MasterVoices semi-stage concert, in fact, had adapted Burt Shevelove’s original script (based on Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy) for that production, and Sondheim reworked and expanded the music. The result, as the MasterVoices presentation demonstrated, was alternately hilarious and profound.


For this past weekend’s three-performance run, the blue-chip cast members excelled in their respective roles. 


Douglas Sills took on Lane’s original part of Dionysos, the god of Theater and Wine, with distinction. In brief, Dionysus travels to Hades with his slave Xanthias (a funny Kevin Chamberlin) in order to bring George Bernard Shaw back to earth to help mankind. But after a competition between Shaw and Shakespeare (Eurpides and Aeschylus in the source material), the Bard’s poetic skill wins the day. Shaw was persuasively embodied by Dylan Baker who delivered a masterful recitation of one of St. Joan’s fervent speeches, while Jordan Donica offered a beautifully spoken Will Shakespeare and sang Sondheim’s moving setting of “Fear No More” gorgeously.


Marc Kudisch was in fine form as Dionysos’s preening half-brother Heracles (aka Hercules), flexing his muscles and, at one point, easing down into an impressive split. Chuck Cooper was most amusing as boatman Charon who rows the pair across the River Styx. And Peter Bartlett was a hoot recreating his 2004 role as the campiest of Plutos, delivering each line for maximum drollery. Candice Corbin had a brief but deeply moving turn as Dionysos’ late wife Ariadne. 


Lainie Sakakura devised some very apt choreography for the excellent dancers who played the eponymous frogs and Dionysian revelers. 


Though apart from the very funny “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience” (here updated with the inclusion of, among other annoyances, a cell phone admonition), none of the other numbers have gotten much stand-alone play. Still, every song in the show bears that treasurable Sondheim stamp, with unmistakable echoes of tunes from the better-known Sondheim classics.


Sperling’s conducting was expertly attuned to Sondheim’s musical language,  while the MasterVoices chorus sounded glorious, positioned, as they were, on three tiers. The whole enterprise made an even better case for the show than what I remembered seeing at the Vivian Beaumont 20 years ago.


The score, nicely varied, and at times as stirring as the great "Sunday" ensemble in “Sunday in the Park with George,” was a pleasure to hear, especially when performed so definitively. 


Lane’s narration, which began with a brief history of the show and his involvement in it, was expertly done, and never detracted but only enhanced the centerstage action. 


(Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center; 10 Columbus Circle;; mastervoices.org; Nov. 3 & 4 only)


Photo by Erin Baiano: (l.-r.) Marc Kudisch, Kevin Chamberlin, and Douglas Sills

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Ohio Light Opera Still Going Strong


By Harry Forbes

For the first time in four years, Ohio Light Opera has returned for a full indoor season of shows (though one shy of the usual seven), and with a full-sized company of players. After skipping 2020 because of COVID, there were abbreviated outdoor or partially outdoor presentations during 2021 and 2022 with reduced forces.

During this time, the talent base of the repertory company has perforce largely changed, with exceptions such as mainstay performers Spencer Reese and Jacob Allen, but I'm happy to report that with the influx of newcomers, the overall quality -- due, no doubt in large part to the leadership of Artistic Director Steven Daigle -- remains undiminished. So, too, the discreet addition of body mikes has made a welcome difference in audibility for the audience, adding just that extra bit of oomph in the expansive Freedlander auditorium.

In addition to their accomplished onstage performances, Reese continues to come up with terrific choreography for all the productions (as well as directing one this season), and Allen, the company’s assistant artistic director, directed two.

The 2023 rarities included Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán’s atypical final work, “Arizona Lady,” and the original 1925 version of Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach’s “No, No, Nanette” which today is better remembered for its long-running 1971 Broadway revival.

Also on the roster was “H.M.S. Pinafore,” the obligatory Gilbert and Sullivan production (reminding us that OLO was, in fact, founded 44 years ago as a company dedicated to the British duo), Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld,” and Broadway classics “Camelot” and “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.”


 There was particular interest among some in seeing the unadulterated, original “Camelot” to compare with director Bartlett Sher’s recently shuttered New York revival with its radically revised book by Aaron Sorkin. To cut to the chase, OLO’s production, faithful to the original text, proved infinitely superior, demonstrating that Sorkin’s wholesale revisions were in no way an improvement. Alan Jay Lerner's original script holds up just fine, and under Daigle's sensitive direction, the show was infinitely more moving than its big budget New York counterpart. And rather surprisingly, even the orchestra, under OLO Music Director Michael Borowitz, sounded lusher than the not inconsiderable 35-piece Lincoln Center orchestra. (OLO’s has about 21.)

James Mitchell, who also impressed with his well drawn tipsy boatman John Styx in “Orpheus,” offered a beautifully acted and sung King Arthur. Though he and the rest of the cast admirably played with English accents (unlike the recent New York crew), Mitchell chose to eschew broad a’s. Still, this was a fine, moving performance.

So too, Sadie Spivey’s Guenevere was sensitively acted and her singing generated comparisons with originator Julie Andrews, while Nathan Seldin’s Lancelot delivered “C’est Moi '' and “If Ever I Would Leave You” with appropriate virile panache and Vincent Gover excelled as both Merlyn and Pellinore. Matthew Reynolds made an appropriately rascally Mordred, and all the other roles were well handled.

“Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” cut from the original production after the cast album was recorded but thereafter not included in the official vocal score, was not included, nor was the randy knights’ choral “Fie on Goodness,” both of which were, in fact, reinstated at Lincoln Center. On the other hand, Nimue’s haunting “Follow Me,” sweetly sung by Sophia Masterson, and “The Jousts” sequence -- excluded in New York and replaced by a non-musical sword fight -- were back in their rightful places here, and Guenevere got back her lovely “I Loved You Once in Silence,” appropriated by Lancelot in New York.


The “Orpheus” staging utilized the late Richard Traubner’s clever 2001 translation, newly adapted by Daigle, who also directed. This was the original 1858 version, with none of the added music from Offenbach's 1874 greatly expanded version, not even the overture.

Tenor Jack Murphy's Orpheus was a well-sung comic delight. Bespectacled, lanky and limber, he drove Eurydice (superbly sung by Christine Price) to the edge of madness with his incessant fiddle playing (incidentally, quite accurately mimed, while Reese’s choreography kept him in ceaseless motion), driving her into the hands of a handsome cowboy who turns out to be Pluto, king of the Underworld, played with devilish charm by Nicholas Orth who sang his opening number from the auditorium making his way through one of the long rows before finishing onstage with an impressive falsetto flourish.

Eventually Jupiter -- played by Vincent Gover who should get a versatility award for all of his brilliantly enacted character roles this season -- and the other gods from Mount Olympus visit Hades, and Jupiter attempts to seduce Eurydice by metamorphosing into a fly. The ensuing duet between Gover, sporting witty gold hot pants along with other wacky fly accouterments, and Price, was a laugh riot, the best I’ve ever seen, as the pair worked themselves into an orgasmic lather.

Bergen Price was outstanding in the sometimes tiresome role of Public Opinion, and handled Daigle’s newly added prologue with aplomb. The Gods were all well played and sung by, among others, Lily Graham (Diana), Michelle Pedersen (Juno), Nathan Seldin (Mars), Tzytle Steinman (Venus), Sara Lucille Law (Cupid), and Margaret Langhorne (Mercury).The whole was stylishly conducted by Borowitz.


“H.M.S. Pinafore” -- performed at OLO more than any other work (135 times) -- was, by comparison with the season’s other offerings, fairly standard stuff but nonetheless a crowd pleaser.

OLO Associate Music Director Wilson Southerland conducted with customary spirit. And here was Gover again, this time as Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (which, incidentally, we learned from OLO Board Chairman Michael Miller’s pre-show talk, stands for Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath!)

I’m not sure I cared for the comic miming that director Reese devised for Corcoran and Buttercup’s “Things Are Seldom What They Seem.” which, arguably, spoiled the twist at the end more than it should, not that diehard G&S fans, who know the show by heart, would care.

Gover’s Porter, Allen’s Captain Corcoran, and Sophia Masterson’s Josephine were all capably performed. Tzytle Steinman’s Little Buttercup hardly fit her character’s “plump” descriptor, but her rich mezzo was a plus. Tenor Owen Malone stepped into the role of Ralph Rackstraw for the first time at my performance and sang with distinction.

OLO has already mounted an impressive 14 Emmerich Kálmán’s works (more than any other company in the world). His operettas are, you might be surprised to learn, the most performed of any operetta composer globally thanks to frequent productions in Eastern Europe and Russia. OLO has a few more titles to go, but they’ve finally gotten around to his last work.


 “Arizona Lady '' received its premiere in early 1954 on Bavarian radio just weeks after Kálmán’s death but was not performed on stage till six weeks later in Bern, Switzerland. It’s a fascinating piece. In many respects, it’s a European’s naive view of America but, in truth, Kálmán was an enthusiastic fan of western novels and films, and the original German libretto fashioned by his longtime collaborator Alfred Grünwald and Gustav Beer is not dissimilar from any number of B-level western movies of the time.

As such, the general narrative is fairly absorbing, but it’s a bit disconcerting when characters react to catastrophic events with remarkable equanimity, and then moments later, break into cheerful song.

Kálmán endeavored to write in a fresh Broadway style, and hearing the work in Daigle’s English translation shows the composer not far off the mark. (Jacob Allen directed.) Kálmán couldn't resist some of his trademark Hungarian strains, and heroine Lona’s entrance number is a close cousin of the numbers in “Die Csárdásfürstin'' and “Gräfin Mariza.” This is explained in the libretto by ascribing her character a partial Hungarian heritage. Thereafter, the score sounds reasonably American, far more so than, say, Puccini’s Western-themed “Fanciulla del West.” The “Yip-i-ay-o’s” don’t sound too forced. There are musically thematic similarities to “Oklahoma!” particularly in the first act “Arizona! Land Where the Cactus Bloom” number. But curiously, Kálmán’s most immediate inspiration was apparently the less-renowned 1949 “Texas, L’il Darlin’.”

Audience members of my performance had the added pleasure of watching the show along with Kálmán’s daughter Yvonne Kálmán, the lady positioned in her customary front row seat, as with past revivals there of her father’s work.

As hero Roy Dexter, Jack Murphy, the aforementioned comic Orpheus, was here transformed into a picture-perfect singing cowboy. He’s hired as foreman of “no-time-for-love” ranch owner Lona Farrell (Louisa Waycott) after she fires the last one. Ideally, I think there should have been more sense of repressed passion between the couple, something more akin to the Mariza-Tassilo dynamic of “Mariza” but, truthfully, the libretto doesn’t afford as much opportunity.

Elsewhere Tzytle Steinman as Nelly and Reese as Chester handled the lively second couple numbers amusingly. Matthew Reynolds was another bright spot as carnival fortune teller Cavarelli (alternating between his bogus Italian and authentic Irish accents), and Lily Graham had a lively bit as a shady nightclub singer who attempts to frame the hero.

The orchestra under Southerland’s baton sounded full-bodied and sumptuous, though sometimes overpowered the singers despite the aforementioned miking.


 “No, No, Nanette” was a real charmer, and for those who remembered the 70s Broadway revival, made a fascinating comparison. Some may recall theater historian John McGlinn’s memorable New York concert version of the 1925 original score in 1986, but OLO’s had the advantage of being fully staged. The Broadway revival with Ruby Keeler, Helen Gallagher, Bobby Van, Susan Watson and Patsy Kelly had spiffy new orchestrations by Ralph Burns, but the authentic original makes for a refreshingly different experience.

OLO’s reconstruction was based on materials at the University of Texas in Austin, and the production was a sensible amalgam of the Broadway and London versions, dropping the inconsequential “My Doctor” and “Payday Pauline” from the former, and using “I’ve Confessed to the Breeze” and “Take a Little One-Step” from the latter, as did the 1971 revival.

Daigle directed with requisite charm, Michael Borowitz at the baton likewise had the right period flavor, while wunderkind Spencer Reese provided miles of choreography besides playing the major role of Billy. (Borowitz also deserves credit for creating an orchestra-readable performance edition.)

The cast was up to the challenge of OLO’s dancingist show since the company’s 2017 “Anything Goes.” When virtually the full cast was onstage tapping away, it made a most impressive sight. My only quibble was that most of the dances commenced with scarcely a moment of dramatic setup. But it was all so enjoyable, that seems a churlish complaint. The show’s evergreen hits, “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy” were exceedingly well served.

Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel’s original book was a bit naughtier than the cozy nostalgic slant of Burt Shevelove’s 1971 revision, and the Vincent Youmans music (lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach) sparkled as ever.

Jacob Allen played Jimmy, the bible publisher with three ladies on the (platonic) side. Bergen Price was his frugal wife Sue who, much to Jimmy’s chagrin, resolutely refuses to spend his money. Sadie Spivey traded Guenevere’s queenly attire for 20s flapper garb, and was equally delightful. Julia Fedor was sharp and savvy as Billy’s wife Lucille, delivering fine versions of “Too Many Rings Around Rosie” and “Where Has My Hubby Gone Blues.” Alexander Spence was Nanette’s straight-laced suitor.

 

Frank Loesser’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” proved once more how well the OLO forces can handle Golden Age Broadway material. Reese played J. Pierrepont Finch, the ambitious window washer who schemes himself to promotion after promotion at the World Wide Wicket Company, and the part especially showcased his excellent vocal delivery, so often overlooked given his dancing talents. Gover made an ideal company president, J.B. Biggley.

Louisa Waycott topped her “Arizona Lady” role with an outstandingly sung and played Rosemary. Matthew Reynolds excelled as the conniving Bud Frump, and Bergen Price demonstrated her versatility as the va-va-voom secretary Hedy LaRue.

Jacob Allen directed with requisite Broadway know-how, and Southerland was the knowing conductor.

There were a couple of special events during the week I attended: a 1985 Hungarian biopic of Kálmán (fortunately subtitled) -- “Az életmuzsikájat - Kálmán Imre” -- which featured generous excerpts from many of his major works. The film was based, in part, on “The Unadulterated Truth,” Kálmán’s 1932 memoir about the early part of his life. (The book has, in fact, just been translated by Alexander Butziger, and will soon be available for order from the Operetta Foundation.)

And Michael Miller gave his annual Operetta Mania potpourri of eclectic operetta videoclips from the world’s stages. On this occasion, the items ranged from a Dutch production of Offenbach’s “Bluebeard” and the all-female Takarazuka Kagekidan Japanese troupe in Cole Porter’s “Can-Can” to a Morbisch “Giuditta” and Maurice Yvain’s “Là-Haut” from a 1984 Paris production. The last named prompted the observation that OLO has actually yet to mount a 20th Century French operetta. We also got to see young Jacob Allen cavorting through “It” from a 2008 OLO production of “The Desert Song.” All the clips were well chosen and placed in interesting context by Miller.

There were, as well, several informative pre-performance talks. Miller handled “Arizona Lady” and “H.M.S. Pinafore,” Reese “Camelot,” and Allen “Orpheus in the Underworld.”

Under Daigle’s and Executive Director Laura Neill’s leadership, Ohio Light Opera has clearly lost not a whit of its mojo, and remains a unique bastion of musical theater and operetta.

(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or ohiolightopera.org; through July 30)

Photos: Matt Dilyard

(Top) Tzytle Steinman & company, “Arizona Lady”

(Below)

“Camelot” company

(l.-r.) Gover, Christine Price, “Orpheus in the Underworld”

“H.M.S. Pinafore” company

(l.-r.) Murphy, Waycott, “Arizona Lady”

(l.r.) Spivey, Reese, “No, No, Nanette”

(l.-r.) Bergen Price, Colin Ring, Madison Barrett, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”