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”


“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”

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