By Harry Forbes
Writing these annual roundups of Ohio Light Opera’s summer festival -- run with consistent panache by Artistic Director Steven Daigle and Executive Director Laura Neill -- is becoming increasingly challenging in terms of avoiding the same old superlatives, particularly when the week attended includes a four-day symposium (that excellent feature now in its fourth year),.
This year’s was no exception as all of this company’s customary virtues were undiminished: the extraordinarily versatile players, the fine musicianship, the scholarship that goes into each revival, and above all, the overwhelming sense of dedication to the cause of musical theater and especially operetta.
The catnip for buffs this season was threefold: George Gershwin’s 1924 English musical “Primrose”; Victor Herbert’s 1912 super-rare Cinderella musical “The Lady of the Slipper”; and the original 1934 version of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” minus all the extraneous interpolations of later years. Matching these titles in delectability, if not necessarily rarity, were Emmerich Kalman’s glorious 1924 classic “Countess Maritza” and Sigmund Romberg’s still highly potent 1924 “The Student Prince,” which has the distinction of being the longest-running musical of the 1920’s, besting Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and everyone else.
Rounding out the season were decent mountings of “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Music Man.”
Heaps of credit for the overall excellence of the productions are due Steven Daigle whose unerring good taste and innate feel for the material are evident throughout. (He directed “Anything Goes,” “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Student Prince,” “Countess Maritza,” and “The Lady of the Slipper,” a remarkable achievement.’)
The regular conductors were back in force, all leading the excellent orchestra -- sounding, incidentally, better than ever -- with style: J. Lynn Thompson (“The Music Man,” “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Student Prince”); Steven Byess (“Anything Goes,” “Primrose,” “The Lady of the Slipper”), and Wilson Southerland (“Countess Maritza”).
“Primrose,” a delightful trifle about a young lady (Sarah Best) who falls for a romance writer (Nathan Brian) while her fiance (Benjamin Krumreig) pairs up with the blonde soubrette (Tanya Roberts), featured engaging songs by Gershwin (lyrics by Desmond Carter and Ira Gershwin), and an amusing book by Guy Bolton and George Grossmith, Jr. This was Best at her best, and she had one of the show’s showstoppers as she let her hair down for “Naughty Baby” (familiar to buffs for its inclusion in the Gershwin pastiche, “Crazy For You”). Stephen Faulk was a hoot as a foppish ladies man pursued by a social climbing beautician (Alexa Devlin in but one of her many spot-on performances this season). The score was lovingly resurrected with the second and third act finales restored. It is truly astonishing to think this bit of British whimsy was penned by the same man who would soon give us “Porgy and Bess.” The whole was stylishly directed by OLO mainstay Julie Wright Costa who onstage made a good showing as Tassilo’s kindly aunt in “Maritza” and ingenue Hope’s imperious mother in “Anything Goes.” But everyone here seemed perfectly cast.
The first thing that strikes you about “The Lady of the Slipper” are the marvelous orchestrations, more sophisticated than almost anything else on OLO’s roster. The music is delightful throughout, if the performing edition is not quite as complete as the never-officially-released John McGlinn recording that sometimes surfaces on YouTube. The work itself is an oddball comic version of the fairy tale which originally served as a vehicle for the great vaudeville team of Montgomery and Stone, as well as the vocally deficient but, by all accounts, delightful Elsie Janis in the title part. All three had been able to interpolate their own specialities into the evening, as for instance, Stone’s acrobatics, and Janis’ apparently peerless impersonations. The result was a smash hit, and critics were unanimous in praising it.
OLO’s production, though attractive, was perforce on a more modest scale, but Stephen Faulk and Nathan Brian made a marvelous present-day Montgomery and Stone, singing dancing and even (in Brian’s case) turning cartwheels as Punks and Spooks respectively, while Gretchen Windt -- no doubt singing with better voice than Janis -- were most appealing leads. Roberts and Best turned up for droll comic turns as step-sister’s Dollbabia and Freakette (love those names!). And here again was Devlin, this time as a wacky gypsy fortune teller. Ted Christopher scored all of the comic points of Cinderella’s befuddled father. And Katherine Corle was the formidable Fairy Godmother. Two of the best songs come towards the very end: the infectious title number and “Put Your Best Foot Forward, Little Girl.”
“Anything Goes” gave Devlin her biggest part, the Ethel Merman role of nightclub chanteuse/evangelist Reno Sweeney. Brassy as Merman but arguably with more warmth she gave fine renditions of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and the title song. The choreography by Spencer Reese, who also played romantic lead Billy Crocker, was quite spectacular right up to the ferociously tapping curtain call finale, which topped his impressive work last season for “Kiss Me Kate” and others. Danielle Knox was lovely as Billy’s love Hope, and Kyle Yampiro scored as her not-so-stuffy English fiance who turns sweet on Reno.
It was quite fascinating to hear at last the original Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse book, the original orchestrations, and none of the Porter songs such as “Friendship” and “Heaven Hop” inserted into later revisions (notably the 1962 revival and the 1987 Patti LuPone Lincoln Center version). But I have a terrible confession. While I’m delighted to have seen this urtext version, it did strike me as rather book heavy with long stretches of non-musical material. I think the 1987 version that was, in all fairness, reasonably faithful to the original book, and added numbers cut from the show along the way, is actually an improvement.
“Countess Maritza” -- with composer Emmerich Kalman’s daughter Yvonne sitting ringside to cheer on the production and make a lovely curtain speech after -- was distinguished by its compelling leads -- Tanya Roberts, grandly imperious and vocally lustrous as the wealthy lady of the manor, and Daniel Neer as the high-born Count Tassilo, who has taken a job incognito as Maritza’s bailiff. Their acting generated real heat, and they sang Kalman’s glorious melodies with requisite passion. Grant Knox was amusing as her would-be suitor, pig farmer Zsupan, and Katherine Corle did well as Tassilo’s sister Lisa who falls for the former. Local restaurateur Spiro Matsos, whose cameo appearances have graced many OLO productions in the past, had an especially meaty part as Maritza’s servant Tschekko, and was quite touching as a good-hearted waiter in “The Student Prince.”
The score was complete including the number for Tassilo and the children (albeit performed by the young ladies of the ensemble) near the beginning and Tassilo’s last act aria (here “Life Could Be So Free of Strife”). The Sadler’s Wells translation by Nigel Douglas (once recorded by Jay Records with Marilyn Hill Smith) was employed here, and apparently an OLO DVD will eventually be forthcoming, which is a good thing as it’s very much a performance worth preserving.
Neer’s assumption of this romantic role was at considerable odds with his other roles -- both comic -- this season. He made a solid Captain Corcoran in “Pinafore” and a plausible Moonface Martin (Public Enemy Number 13) in “Anything Goes,” more gentle giant than the sweet nebbish originator Victor Moore must have been.
Speaking of “Pinafore,” there was good vocalizing from Krumreig and Hilary Koolhoven in the double cast roles of Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine, the latter coping with Josephine’s high-lying pieces with aplomb. OLO veteran Boyd Mackus was a first-rate Sir Joseph Porter, and was also solid in several other “older man” roles, including Doctor Engel in “The Student Prince,” and Maritza’s suitor, Prince Moritz, in the Kalman piece. Devlin’s Little Buttercup was, like her Katisha last season, richly sung in her classical mezzo, as opposed to Broadway belt, voice. Nathan Brian, a far cry from his dapper self in “Primrose,” transformed himself into a twisted Dick Deadeye.
“The Student Prince” had the audience satisfyingly reaching for Kleenex as Prince Karl Franz (Grant Knox, here the polar opposite of his comic turn in “Maritza”) and barmaid commoner Kathie's (Gillian Hollis with fearless high notes) youthful affair was doomed from the start. Stephen Faulk made a handsome, well-sung Captain Tarnitz who loves the prince’s fiancee Princess Margaret (Grace Caudle). They sang the sweeping waltz “Just We Two” very prettily. The men of the chorus acquitted themselves with distinction in this male-chorus dominated score.
“The Music Man” was perfectly respectable, and had a very fine Harold Hill in the versatile person of Nathan Brian at my performance (Ted Christopher alternated the role at other performances), with Devlin again impressing with her warmly maternal Mrs. Paroo, mother of librarian Marian. (Sarah Best’s creamy mezzo had no trouble navigating the high-ranging notes, and acted with her usual sensitivity.) Spencer Reese again supplied impressive Broadway-style choreography, the highlight arguably being the big “Shipoopi” number led by Krumreig’s Marcellus. Young Bryson Christopher was an audience favorite with his cutely sung “Gary, Indiana.”
Nearly all the shows had corresponding lectures, excepting “The Music Man” and “Primrose.”. Broadway historian Richard Norton made a welcome return appearance recounting the tortured history of how “Anything Goes” came to be fashioned, especially after a boat disaster (the SS Morro Castle tragedy) made it necessary to scuttle P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton’s original story, He included detail about the economics behind the production, illustrated with aural and visual mementos of earlier productions.
Steven Ledbetter, currently working on an analysis of Herbert’s works from a musical perspective, gave us an erudite history of family entertainment that segued into a little background on the Herbert piece.
Romberg biographer William Everett presented a fascinating biographical talk on the Hungarian-born composer, and then another on “The Student Prince” hypnotically stressing the twin themes of memory and young love. His compelling narrative style made both talks especially engaging.
So, too, Wesleyan College literature professor Regina Oost offered a quite riveting lecture on the genesis of “Pinafore,” and topped that with an even more absorbing talk on the origin of “Ages Ago,” the light opera W.S. Gilbert (pre-partnership with Sullivan) wrote with Frederic Clay for the Gallery of Illustration run by German Reed. Like Everett, she has the unique ability to bring the past to vivid life.
And I must not forget OLO Board chairman Michael Miller who gave an intriguing (and, as usual, highly amusing) lecture on lost operettas focusing on Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Thespis”; Victor Herbert’s “Vivandiere”; Kalman’s “The Blue House”; and Jerome Kern’s “Lamplight.”
Earlier, he had hosted an operetta film session and screened a fascinating oddball rarity, a 1950 B-level two-reeler, “The Return of Gilbert & Sullivan,” wherein the two gentlemen come down from the pearly gates to observe the havoc being wreaked on their songs, and make a deal with a Hollywood producer to compose songs for a musical film. It turns out to be a detective story (something akin to Fred Astaire’s gangster ballet in “The Bandwagon”) with the familiar tunes decked out with new lyrics. What was originally color was only available in black and white, and featured a no-name but not untalented cast, and the musical within the film was fun.
Oost’s “Ages Ago” lecture immediately preceded a slightly abridged concert version which proved highly rewarding on both musical and dramatic points. The piece rather echoes “Ruddigore” in its conceit of a portrait gallery coming to life. Ivana Martinic as both Rosa and Lady Maud won all hearts when she emerged from her picture frame with her rapturous, exquisitely sung account of “I Live, I Breathe.”
The work itself was a revelation, genuinely funny and with a score of some distinction. (Composer Frederic Clay was, in fact, a friend of Sullivan.) There were some interesting Gilbertian conceits such as the propriety of falling in love with your ancestor and other head-scratching complications. Spencer Reese, Garrett Medlock, Gretchen Windt, and Kyle Yampiro were all in excellent form for the other roles. Everyone agreed this one really cried out for a full production, with its absorbing book and excellent score (perhaps it might be staged with the Sullivan/Burnand “Cox and Box,” some said), but even in this semi-staged, piano-only version, “Ages Ago” made a solid impression.
This was not the only treasurable concert of the week. The annual “Songs from the Cutting Room Floor” (that is, songs from the works currently on the mainstage that were cut prior to production or else, in some instances, added in later productions or films) was expanded to double-length, and allowed us to hear such gems as Marian’s doleful “I Want to Go to Chicago” (sung by the alternate Marian, Danielle Knox), the infectious “Jack o’Lantern Love” from “The Lady of the Slipper” (sung by Gretchen Windt and the ensemble) and Porter’s naughty “Kate the Great” from “Anything Goes” (sung by Arielle Nachtigal) all very well performed by the OLO singers, and marvelously accompanied by Eric Andries.
There was also a nighttime Lehar concert, comprised almost entirely of lesser-known numbers. A medley from “The Merry Widow” capped the first act, but apart from that, the numbers were all from works only die-hard collectors of those Lehar CPO CD releases would have heard, such as “Die Blaue Mazur,” “Der Rastelbinder,” and ”Der Gottergatte.” Here was an opportunity for several members of the ensemble to shine, as they did. Most of the numbers were given in English which added interest. Wilson Southerland accompanied all with deft sensitivity. Daigle directed, and was credited with concept and script, while Michael Miller did the musical programming. Ted Christopher provided the droll narration as if it were an old-time radio broadcast.
Daigle was also the knowledgeable emcee for that concert and most of the others, though the cut songs narrating chores were shared with Laura Neill, J. Lynn Thompson, Julie Wright Costa, and Steven Byess. The musical programming and sharp script were courtesy of OLO board chair Michael Miller whose expert hand was evident throughout all the Symposium events.
On the last day of Symposium, there were two delightful concerts back to back. The first -- “Once Upon a Time - The Storybook World of Operetta” -- was composed of songs from works suggested by fairy tales, Cole Porter’s “Aladdin,” Johann Strauss’ “Indigo and the Forty Thieves,” and Mary Rodgers’ “Once Upon a Mattress” among them. Stephen Faulk and Ivana Martinic’s charming “Ev’ry Little Moment” from “Mr. Cinders”; Ted Christopher’s “Shall I Take My Heart and Go?” from Leroy Anderson’s “Goldilocks”; Tanya Roberts’ “How to Tell a Fairy Tale” from Herbert’s “Alice and the Eight Princesses”; and Nathan Brian’s “”When I Close My Eyes” from Charles Kalman’s “Dryad’s Kiss” were among the highlights. Again, Southerland accompanied, while Daigle narrated Miller’s script.
The second half entitled “Operetta’s Irreverent Take on Society at Large” featured winning numbers such as “Moonstruck” from Lionel Monckton’s “Our Miss Gibbs” (with Gillian Hollis, Arielle Nachtigal, Katherine Corle, and Yvonne Trobe); the wickedly funny “In Izzenschnooken on the Lovely Essensook Zee” from Rick Besoyan’s “Little Mary Sunshine” (expertly sung by Julie Wright Costa); and “I’d Rather Be Right” from the Rodgers & Hart show of the same name (with Jonathan Heller and Katherine Corle). For both concerts, Southerland accompanied, while Miller narrated his predictably informative script.
So as you can see, this was a full plate indeed, but all the overlapping events were accomplished with minimal stress, thanks to the carefully strategic and efficient planning by Laura Neill and Michael and (fellow board member) Nan Miller.
(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or ohiolightopera.org; through August 12)
All photos: Matt Dilyard