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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Orange Blossoms (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

LOONY raised its own bar by several notches with their latest production. For starters, although they’ve done Victor Herbert before, this time they chose a real rarity: the composer’s last operetta which was produced in 1922. Even closer to musical comedy, this is the show that produced the evergreen “A Kiss in the Dark.”

As with the recent exhumation of Herbert’s rare “Cyrano de Bergerac” by the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project, it was refreshing to be reminded that there’s so much more to Herbert than those warhorses “Naughty Marietta” and “The Red Mill.”

Second, the show had markedly higher production values than ever before: actual sets to go with Bettina Bierly’s stylish costumes.

Third, the orchestral accompaniment was raised to nine players from their usual six. And though past productions have had excellent musical direction, this one had the additional cachet of being led by a name conductor, Evans Haille, at the piano. His expertise with this sort of material ensured the score was in good hands.

Add to that an excellent cast that acted as well as they sang.

And, most excitingly, it was announced that the work will be recorded by Albany Records in the studio.

That was particularly good news as – and here’s the one discouraging word about the evening -- it was nearly impossible to make out many of the B.G. DeSylva’s lyrics. This seems to have been partly due to the reconstructed orchestrations (from Herbert’s autograph score) often doubling the vocal line.

The story concerns one Baron Roger Belmont (Glenn Seven Allen) who needs to marry if he is to collect his inheritance, but his late aunt’s will stipulates it can’t be Helen De Vasquez (Sarah Callinan), the divorcee whom he loves. So solicitor Tillie Jones (Lisa Flanagan) comes up with a scheme. Roger can marry her goddaughter Kitty (Natalie Ballenger) for a year – during which time Kitty will live alone in comfort in Cannes – after which they will divorce, and Roger will be free to marry Helen. Once Roger finally gets to know Kitty in the second act, however, he genuinely falls for her. And you can guess the rest.

Other characters include Tillie’s assistant Brassac (David Kelleher-Flight), Kitty’s maid Nanette (an amusing Sarah Best) in Cannes, and incognito American detective Jimmy JJ Flynn (Ben Liebert). Jeanmarie Lally completed the cast in other roles.

Director/choreographer Michael Phillips adapted the script and co-wrote additional lyrics (with Cynthia Edwards), but generally followed the original storyline and song order. The biggest change in the text was a cheeky bit of gender swapping. The character of Bressac should be the solicitor and Kitty’s godfather, and Tillie his American secretary who, more logically, would be teamed with Jimmy as the secondary comic couple.

I’m not sure what was gained by having them switch roles, but in the event, Flanagan and Kelleher-Flight (doing a sort of Edward Everett Horton turn) were excellent in their reconstituted roles, so “all” that was lost was authenticity.

The leads were ideal. Allen made a dashing Baron and Ballenger a lovely Kitty. Callinan was vocally strong as the jealous Helen and, as indicated, Sarah Best made the most of her comic maid’s part. Liebert scored with his comic numbers, singing and dancing.

The musical program was pretty much complete, some orchestral bits aside, and Kitty lost her pretty song, “In Hennequeville.” LOONY departed from its usual format of a chorus of four men and four women, so ensemble numbers such as the opening chorus and “On the Riviera” were modified to fit the forces at hand.

The dialogue was snappily delivered, and though the original book by (Miss) Fred De Gresac, based on her play “La Passerelle,” was generally derided, this adaptation registered as a cut above.

Those acoustical issues aside, the evening was a genuine delight.

(Light Opera of New York, The Thalia at Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway, symphonyspace.org or 212-864-5400; April 25 and 26 only)
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