By Harry Forbes
Fans of musical theater and operetta will not find a richer, more concentrated banquet of their favorite entertainment than that offered by a company based in the quiet college town of Wooster, Ohio, which every summer -- for eight weeks -- offers an impressive array of 58 performances of seven productions. As if that weren’t enough, for one of those weeks, the regular offerings are supplemented by lectures and some extra musical material. Even though OLO eschewed the official symposium of the past five years, there were still plenty of show-related talks handled by the in-house creative team, extra concerts, and other goodies.
The mainstage offerings this season were a heady mix of European operetta, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Broadway musicals, among them two choice rarities: Welsh composer Ivor Novello’s 1945 London megahit, “Perchance to Dream,” which originally ran for 1,022 performances, fueled by its matinee idol creator’s adoring public, and the breakout song, “We’ll Gather Lilacs,” which resonated deeply with wartime audiences; and the American premiere of Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán’s “Der Teufelsreiter” (The Devil’s Rider), an infrequently revived work (even in Europe) dating from 1932.
Of the Broadway musicals, familiar works like “South Pacific” (the company’s second mounting), and Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” (OLO’s first Sondheim and the most modern classic musical in the repertoire thus far) were joined by urtext productions of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” (1930) and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Music in the Air” (1932), each more musically complete than even their respective (and admirable) mountings in New York’s Encores series. We were assured not a measure of dance music was cut in either of those shows.
Some familiar faces were missing this season, but the company was strong, and impressed with its versatility, most performers playing multiple roles, and moving effortlessly from principal player in one show to ensemble in another.
Steven A. Daigle, the company’s tireless artistic director, directed five of the seven productions, nailing the style of each perfectly. “Into the Woods,” for one, was profoundly moving, much like his superb “Candide” last season, though opinions were divided on the wisdom of opening the show with the cast in modern dress slowly entering from the audience, and gradually transforming into their fairytale counterparts. But I felt it worked well, underscoring the significance of myth and storytelling in everyone’s life.
Several of the roles were doublecast, and at my performance, Kyle Yampiro and Tanya Roberts excelled as the Baker and his wife, with fine work by Chelsea Miller as Cinderella, Sadie Spivey as Little Red Ridinghood, Hannah Holmes as the Witch, Brad Baron as the Wolf, Benjamin Dutton and Aidan Smerud as the Princes, and Julie Wright Costa as Jack’s Mother.
Costa was equally outstanding in “Perchance to Dream,” also directed by Daigle. As crusty Lady Charlotte, imperious aunt of the highwayman hero Graham Rodney, and the part originated by Margaret Rutherford, she delivered her sardonic lines with much the same withering sarcasm as Maggie Smith on “Downton Abbey.” And it must be said that Novello’s unabashedly romantic book is uncommonly literate, however unlikely the fanciful situations.
This is one of those multi-generational works, like “Maytime” and “Les Trois Valses,” where true love isn’t resolved until the third act. The ancestral connections are a bit convoluted, as the characters are not necessarily descendants of the earlier romantic protagonists. So too at times, it’s a bit perplexing to know for whom to root, as the sweet characters embodied by Sarah Best (Lydia, Veronica, Iris) are the most sympathetic, while at least one of those played by Chelsea Miller (Melinda, Melanie, and Melody) is rather manipulative and scheming, if short of being an outright villainess. Still all is resolved most movingly by the end with a logic that would seem to owe much to one of J.B. Priestley’s metaphysical tales. (Priestley is, in fact, referenced in the dialogue.)
Jacob Allen was not exactly the darkly rakish heartthrob embodied by Novello, but he had the full measure of the script, and like the rest of the cast, did justice to Novello’s dialogue. (English accents were convincing, too.) Though I had seen a production of “Perchance to Dream” many years ago in London, with the late film star Simon (“Young Winston”) Ward as the not particularly charismatic lead, I had forgotten how much the property is really a dramatic play with songs. But when they come, they are choice.
Best and Yvonne Trobe (in the role originated by Novello favorite Olive Gilbert) harmonized stunningly on the big “Lilacs” tune, while Best delivered “Love Is My Reason,” “A Woman’s Heart,” and her part of the rapturous “Victorian Wedding” sequence with warm tone and customary sensitivity. (Though I didn’t catch her performances, Best also essayed Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and The Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods.”)
Miller’s rendering of Roma Beaumont’s famous numbers, “When I Curtsied to the King” and “The Glo-Glo” (amusingly staged along can-can lines by choreographer Spencer Reese), were equally accomplished. My favorite number, the catchy “Highwayman Love,” was excitingly vocalized by Trobe, who impressively nailed each of her varied parts this season. Trobe’s other vocal moments included a pastiche Victorian ditty called “The Elopement,” performed in tandem with the incredibly versatile Kyle Yampiro as the Vicar.
Steven Byess conducted the score ravishingly. Along with “Into the Woods,” this Novello musical packed the biggest emotional wallop.
“The Devil’s Rider,” directed by Daigle from his own translation, and again conducted by Byess, proved a fascinating and tuneful paean to Hungarian independence, and featured a particularly dashing, solidly acted, and vocally strong performance by Benjamin Dutton as the eponymous Count Sándor, a real-life historical figure who had the temerity to woo Leontine, the daughter of the Austrian Prince Metternich, after having his horse make a daring leap over the carriage carrying the princess and Empress Carolina Pia. (Amusingly, the Empress believes she herself was the object of Sándor’s flirtatious stunt.)
It was quite a marathon role for Dutton and he knocked it out of the park, even managing some athletic dancing with Tanya Roberts’ fairytale pretty Leontine during their duets. Dutton, a standout in last season’s “Cloclo,” also impressed as Cinderella’s Prince in “Into the Woods” and Lt. Cable in “South Pacific.”
The script was not by Kálmán’s usual librettists, Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, as the team had had a falling out, but rather Berlin-based Rudolph Schanzer and Ernst Welisch, and there seemed to be a greater-than-usual quotient of expository dialogue. But the music, when it came, was stirring and tuneful, loaded with foxtrots, tangos, waltzes, and marches, all played here with pizzazz.
Tanya Roberts resplendent in her period costume, sang with her customary luster, though the part itself lacks agency. Kyle Yampiro, Tim McGowan, and a particularly delightful Sadie Spivey livened matters as the comic secondary leads. OLO veteran Boyd Mackus had reams of dialogue as Metternich, but at least dispatched it with admirable briskness, and Yvonne Trobe, whose other roles this season were mostly in the comedic vein, was the model of regal elegance as the gracious, if deluded, Empress. A DVD release of this super-rare work is planned for next summer.
Under the baton of J. Lynn Thompson, “The Pirates of Penzance,” a revision of the company’s 2014 production, was directed by company veteran Ted Christopher (who also played the Sergeant of Police) in high style. Chelsea Miller made a spectacular Mabel, as her Cunegonde in last season’s peerless “Candide” seemed to portend. She made “Poor Wandering One” sound something akin to Hoffmann’s high-flying Olympia. Boyd Mackus was a model Major-General, playing with appropriate bluster. Hannah Holmes made a fine Ruth, and demonstrated here and elsewhere how she’s really come into her own in this, her sixth season. Abby Kurth (Holmes’ sister), Yvonne Trobe, and Sadie Spivey excelled as Mabel’s friends. And the reliable Brad Baron was funny indeed as a Pirate King in the Kevin Kline mold.
Baron is so adept at comic roles -- this year, he also played the aforementioned Wolf and Slick Fothergill in “Girl Crazy” -- that it was all the more impressive to see him as such a commanding Emile de Becque in “South Pacific,” singing “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” with rich tone and Ezio Pinza-like gravitas. Jocelyn Hansen was the capable Nellie, but the other rafter-raising vocal performance was that of Michelle Pedersen, as fine a Bloody Mary as I’ve ever seen. Also outstanding were Kyle Yampiro, ideally cast as Luther Billis, and Ted Christopher in the non-singing role of Captain Brackett. Jacob Allen directed the complex show proficiently.
The show is filled with Kern chestnuts, stylishly conducted by Wilson Southerland: “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star,” “And Love Was Born,” “One More Dance,” “In Egern on the Tegern See,” and above all, “The Song Is You.” Roberts and Baron had a fine over-the-top time with the amusing extended sequence in which they act out their new operetta.
Daigle’s staging was, once again, right on target, and the story of hopeful dreams and ultimate disillusionment unfolded authentically. Ted Christopher and Spencer Reese were affecting as, respectively, Sieglinde’s music teacher and composer father Walther Lessing, and music publisher Ernst Weber, who poignantly reconnects with his boyhood friend Walther and small-town values. Garrett Medlock as the show-within-the-show’s music director, had a powerful scene where he was compelled to lay down the harsh realities of show business to stage-hopeful Sieglinde’s father.
Company member Spencer Reese continues to up OLO’s game with his imaginative choreography, and his handiwork was evident in all seven productions, from the delicious bits in “The Pirates of Penzance” that made the overly familiar numbers seem so very fresh to the spirited hoofing in “The Devil’s Rider.” But it was in “Girl Crazy” that he really outdid himself, providing more dancing than in any previous OLO production, topping even his own dance-heavy “Anything Goes” from 2017, which broke the previous record in that regard. The post-curtain call Broadway-level tap fest was really thrilling.
“Girl Crazy,” the show that famously put Ethel Merman on the map, and also starred Ginger Rogers, received a bang-up production with Reese himself as the pampered East Coast playboy sent by his father out west where he promptly turns the family property into a glitzy dude ranch, and falls in love with the only gal in town, post office worker Molly. Hannah Holmes was likable in the Rogers role, handling her parts of “But Not For Me” and “Embraceable You” with assurance, and joining the rest of the cast in that electrifying tap dancing finale.
Yvonne Trobe, who impressed with her classical soprano in “Perchance to Dream,” took on the belting Merman role, and socked over first-rate renditions of the lady’s famous songs in that show: “Sam and Delilah,” “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!” and, of course, “I Got Rhythm.”
Guy Bolton and John McGowan’s script was fairly nonsensical, but nonetheless amusing, and with one Gershwin evergreen after another, who’s to complain?
Under Byess’ baton, the orchestra sizzled. The original production boasted Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols, and Gene Krupa in the pit, but the OLO forces really showed they could cut loose too.
Reese had the right period style as playboy Danny, and Alan Smith was effective as his treacherous rival Sam. Kyle Yampiro was very funny as displaced New York City cabdriver Gieber Goldfarb who, over the course of the evening, got to channel everyone from Maurice Chevalier to Mae West in drag, the latter to replace some un-pc Yiddish-Indian schtick in the original. Garrett Medlock, Tim McGowan, Diego Roberts Buceta, and Vincent Gover harmonized winningly in the oft-reprised “Bidin’ My Time.”
Moving on to the extra items during the special “lagniappe” week, for so it was informally dubbed, there was a splendid orchestra-only concert entitled “Without Words,” and featuring nine lengthy orchestral medleys from operettas and musicals. It was a fine idea to give the spotlight to the 28-piece ensemble which performed so superbly throughout the season. These medleys, featured in salons and cinemas, and contemporaneous with the original productions, are sometimes the only surviving orchestrations, though as emcee Michael Miller pointed out parts exist for virtually all of the shows sampled here and thus these works could someday be accorded full OLO productions.
The concert began with a medley from Victor Herbert’s “The Only Girl,” and continued with such choice items as George Gershwin and Herbert Stothart’s “Song of the Flame,” Lionel Monckton’s “The Quaker Girl,” Ivan Caryll’s “The Pink Lady,” and Sigmund Romberg’s “Rose de France.”
A couple of days later, the annual “Songs from the Cutting-Room Floor,” featuring excised numbers from the mainstage shows, as well as other related material from such shows as Porter’s “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” Novello’s “Valley of Song,” and the London “Die Fledermaus” adaptation “Nightbirds,” allowed more members of the OLO troupe to display their formidable talents.
Standout performances included Charles Austin Piper’s “Give Me the Land” from “Silk Stockings”; Logan Barat’s “Donkey Serenade,” added to the MGM film of “The Firefly”; Ivana Martinic and Adam Wells’ “If I Never Waltz Again” from “Marinka” (Kálmán’s Broadway musical which, in fact, recycled many of the tunes from “The Devil’s Rider”); Sadie Spivey and Tim McGowan’s “I’d Be Happy Anywhere with You” from Romberg’s “Her Soldier Boy”; Aidan Smerud’s “Tired” from Kalman’s “The Little Dutch Girl”; and Diego Roberts Buceta, Austin Rubinoski, and Piper’s rousing “Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here,” freely adapted in 1917 from “With Cat-Like Tread” from “The Pirates of Penzance.” But everyone was so good, it’s almost unfair to single out anyone.
Wilson Southerland accompanied all on the eighty-eights.
As if all this weren’t enough, Miller presented two fascinating video presentations, one an overview of some choice company performances from the past. Among the highlights were a simply hilarious scene from Offenbach’s “The Island of Tulipatan” with Anthony Maida and Alta Boover; two tantalizing numbers from Kálmán’s “Sari,” featuring Lucas Meachem, Tim Oliver, and Sarah Jane McMahon; company founder James Stuart in “The Sorcerer”; Julie Wright Costa’s fiery turn as Aldonza in ‘Man of La Mancha”; Anna-Lisa Hackett and Evan McCormack in a delicious “Madame Pompadour” duet; and a stirring rendition of “Yours Is My Heart Alone” by the late, much-loved tenor Brian Woods. Many of the clips were low tech, but the sheer talent shone through vividly.
The other video presentation was a comprehensive overview of movie musical dubbing. Along with such famous examples such as Marni Nixon dubbing for Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, and Natalie Wood, there was a dizzying potpourri of dozens of lesser-known examples, some quite surprising such as Mary Martin supplying the singing voice for Margaret Sullivan, all capped off by the presentation of a handful of Hollywood operetta trailers.
Of the seven pre-show talks, Daigle and Miller’s joint presentation on “The Devil’s Rider” (both the show and its fascinating historical background); Wilson Southerland on “Music in the Air”; assistant director Ian Silverman’s backgrounder on “Girl Crazy”; and Spencer Reese’s talk on “Into the Woods” were particularly illuminating. But all the lectures, including those offered by Steven Byess, Jacob Allen, and Ted Christopher, provided insights on the works, performances, and the company itself.
Under the leadership of Daigle, Executive Director Laura Neill, and Board Chair Michael Miller, OLO continues to function at an impressively high level, giving us carefully curated revivals of shows which -- some exceptions like “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Into the Woods” aside -- simply can’t be seen anywhere else. Attendees were already heard eagerly anticipating what next season’s show selections might be. And who could blame them?
(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or ohiolightopera.org; through August 11)
All photos by Matt Dilyard
Top to bottom:
Girl Crazy: Hannah Holmes & Company
Into the Woods: Cast
Into the Woods: Kyle Yampiro, Alan Smith, Tanya Roberts
Perchance to Dream: Jacob Allen, Chelsea Miller
Perchance to Dream: Julie Wright Costa, Yvonne Trobe, Sarah Best
The Devil’s Rider: Yvonne Trobe, Benjamin Dutton
The Devil’s Rider: Tanya Roberts, Benjamin Dutton
The Pirates of Penzance: Brad Baron & Company
Music in the Air: Adam Wells, Tanya Roberts
Music in the Air: Adam Wells, Tanya Roberts, Spencer Reese, Brad Baron, Ted Christopher, Sadie Spivey
Girl Crazy: Spencer Reese, Hannah Holmes
Perchance to Dream: Sarah Best, Jacob Allen
The Pirates of Penzance: Boyd Mackus & Company