The Merry Widow
By The Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Put one of the world’s leading sopranos on the stage of one of the world’s leading opera houses in one of the greatest operettas ever composed and good things are likely to happen. And so it has come to pass with the Lyric Opera’s staging of Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” starring the eminent Renee Fleming. And just to ensure that the production looked and sounded its best, Susan Stroman was signed to direct and choreograph the production, the same Susan Stroman who directed and choreographed “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein” and choreographed “Crazy for You.”
“The Merry Widow” is being presented for 10 performances, the first 7 starring Fleming. The run will be completed by Nicole Cabell. This is a sumptuous production, filled with spectacle and pageantry to illuminate the Lehar score that includes such operetta standards as “Going to Maxims,” “Vilja” and, of course, “The Merry Widow Waltz.”
The story takes place in Paris in 1905 and centers on a wealthy and beautiful recently widowed lady named Hanna Glawari. Hanna is a native of Pontevedro, one of those mythical Balkan countries that pop up in so frequently in operettas of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The government of Pontevedro is near bankruptcy and sees its salvation in having one of their men marry Hanna for her fortune, which can then pay off the country’s debts. That’s a plot as good as most in operetta land. In any case, it gets the narrative ball rolling.
The Pontevedro ambassador to France hand picks Danilo Danilovich, a Pontevedro diplomat by day and a playboy by night, to woo Hanna into marriage and fiscal salvation for her country. But Danilo is the most confirmed of bachelors and just as bad, he and Hanna have a romantic history that ended badly. Throughout the opera, two bicker back and forth like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick. Needless to say, by the final curtain the couple recognize they love each other and all ends happily, both for Hanna and Danilo and presumably for Pontevedro.
That’s the main plot but it has to compete with all kinds of romantic subplots for the audience’s attention. In the aristocratic society of Paris of the time, the men seemed to spend most of their time trying to seduce the wives of colleagues and the wives spend as much time trying to be seduced. That leads to an unending series of complications, with mistaken identities and lovers just missing meetings by a hairbreadth that would have revealed their machinations to the unsuspecting husband or wife.
One attends an operetta in a tolerant and forgiving mood as far as the story is concerned. The plots are woven of purest dramatic thistledown, primarily filler that separates the songs and dances from the dialogue. But as narratives go, “The Merry Widow” is far better than average, with lots of witty lines, some decent clowning, and embarrassing encounters and near encounters that are actually humorous. But one attends for the music and that’s where Lehar provides the big payoff.
The Lyric Opera production is not only sung beautifully, its sets and costumes are ravishing. Those sets and costumes originated with the Metropolitan Opera revival in New York City, which premiered on New Year’s Eve, 2014. The first act opens in the luxurious ballroom of the Pontevedro embassy, lusciously designed by Julian Crouch, who also designed Hanna’s handsome mansion gardens in the second act and the interior of Maxim’s famous night club in the third act. William Ivey Long has outfitted the dozens of performers in elegant period gowns and formal wear, as well as sexy outfits worn by the grisettes employed to dance the can-can (and otherwise entertain the gentleman guests) at Maxim’s.
The production is thus a suitably opulent setting for a star of the fame and talent of Renee Fleming. She not only sings radiantly but she can act persuasively, an observation that cannot be made about all divas. Fleming is charming and beautiful, and it’s easy to think that “The Merry Widow” was created as a star vehicle especially for her. In particular, her rendering of the beautiful “Vilja” is both musically magnificent and emotionally stirring.
Fleming is masterfully partnered by Thomas Hampson, one of the leading baritones in opera today. He has the voice for the role of Danilo, as well as the good looks and acting chops and stage presence. Their barbs tossed back and forth are literate comedy when they aren’t singing luminously.
Fleming and Hampson don’t monopolize the singing honors. Heidi Strober and Michael Spyres earn high honors as one of the aristocratic couples ensnared in a love affair that is responsible for many of the romantic confusions of the plot as Valencienne and the count Camille de Rosillon. With Valencienne’s husband coming between them, their way to a successful affair is bumpy, but it all works out in the end. Patrick Carfizzi does well as Baron Mirko Zeta, Valencienne’s husband and a man born to wear the cuckold’s horns.
Fleming and Hampson bring a surprising level of credibility to their characters’s erratic course toward true love. The cliché about opera singers being all vocal skills and limited acting abilities does not apply to them. Indeed, the supporting players, male and female, are all decent actors or better, allowing for some of the preposterous situations the composer places them in.
The huge supporting cast is peppered with local performers familiar to attendees of the Marriott Theatre and the Drury Lane Theatre, Chicagoland’s two chief purveyors of musical comedy. First among equals is Jeff Dumas, who scores big as Njegus, Danilo’s assistant, a man always is putting his foot in his mouth in commenting about the illicit romances afoot. Other familiar local names in the ensemble include Jonathan Weir, Jennie Sophia, Michael Weber, Ariane Dolan, and McKinley Carter.
Stroman’s choreography is elegant at the embassy dance, folksy, in Hanna’s mansion gardens, and sexy at Maxim’s. She ensures that the broad comedy isn’t too broad and the assorted intrigues are kept clear, thanks in part to the invaluable projections of the lyrics and dialogue above the stage. This version is presented in English (Lehar wrote the show in German) but I, for one, was grateful for the subtitle assistance.
“The Merry Widow” runs through December 13 at the Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. For performance times and ticket information, call 312 332 2244 or visit www.lyricopera.org.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars November, 2015
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By the Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Dan Zeff
Chicago - “Carousel,” being a classic of the American musical theater, can triumph with even a mundane professional production on the strength of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score alone. So the revival of the show by the Lyric Opera of Chicago is worth seeing, but idolaters of the musical should be prepared for some disappointment at the lackluster quality of much of the staging.
“Carousel” is the third entry in a five season series of Rodgers and Hammerstein hits presented by the Lyric, with “Oklahoma” and “The Sound of Music” behind and “The King and I” and “South Pacific” ahead.
The Lyric does give the show the full opera treatment, with a huge cast, a large orchestra, and an opera length of just under three hours. The musical is the Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation of the Hungarian play “Liliom,” transported from Budapest in 1921 to a fishing town in New England from 1873 to 1888. The story follows the troubled love affair between a local mill worker named Julie Jordan and a swaggering carnival barker named Billy Bigelow. There is lots of local color in the storytelling, which ends on a note of “Our Town” type fantasy. This is a romantic musical of deceptive simplicity, a throwback more to the operettas of the earlier 1900’s than to the cutting edge musicals that were starting to pop up at midcentury (“Carousel” opened in 1945).
Rodgers and Hammerstein music is triumphant, a roll call of hits that starts
with the wonderful Carousel Waltz that opens the show through “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All
Over,” “What’s the Use of Wondrin,” and that all-time tearjerker “You’ll Never
Walk Alone.” Even the less familiar numbers work beautifully within the
framework of the story.
The Lyric has brought in Rob Ashford as the director and choreographer. Ashford has a formidable list of credits in both musicals and straight plays on Broadway and in London, but he hasn’t brought much creative charge to this production. There are a few sparkling moments but overall the staging is inert, with choruses grouped and virtually motionless and a lack of energy pervasive, including less than inspired choreography that rouses itself only occasionally.
The stars are Steven Pasquale as Billy Bigelow and Laura Osnes as Julie Jordan. Pasquale has a good stage presence as the bravado-soaked barker but his voice is a little light for the demands of the R+H score. Still, he got a rousing ovation for his delivery of the “Soliloquy” near the end of the first act, one of the great showstoppers in American musical history. Pasquale is most successful in his character’s more brutish moments. There isn’t a whole lot of chemistry between his Billy and Osnes’s Julie, who sings with a clarion clarity but doesn’t elevate the character beyond a sweet and innocent young woman who allowed her heart to lead her into wedding with a feckless man not meant for marriage.
The actual star of the Lyric production is Jenn Gambatese as Julie’s friend Carrie. Gambatese won her Lyric Opera spurs last season as a superb Maria in “The Sound of Music.” She has a radiant voice and a nice comic touch to her acting. Some company should give her a crack at Julie Jordan. She would be terrific.
Supporting role honors go to Denyce Graves as Nettie Fowler for her belting leadership in “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “This Was a Real Nice Clambake,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Jarrod Emick is a properly slimy Jigger Craven and Matthew Hydzik sings the mostly comic role of Enoch Snow nicely. Charlotte D’Amboise does what she can with the role of Mrs. Mullen, the owner of Billy’s carousel who has an erotic eye on her employee.
Broadway star Tony Roberts has been imported for the cameo role of the heavenly Starkeeper. His scenes would have been perfect for some eye-popping special effects but Roberts was allowed to walk through his role with no fantasy flourishes, a prime example of the lost opportunities for imaginative touches throughout the production.
The physical production features a set design by Paolo Ventura that emphasizes geometrical blocks of color as a background to realistic foregrounds. Catherine Zather designed the authentic looking period costumes. Ned Austin designed the lighting and Mark Grey is responsible for the sound design. David Chase directs the orchestra and its low keyed approach to even the bounciest numbers in the score.
What this production of “Carousel” needs is a large helping of zest. The two stars aren’t hugely charismatic but they get the job done and likely would shine brighter in a more creative staging. The big disappointment comes in the big dance numbers like “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “Blow High, Blow Low,” and especially the extended and meandering second act dream ballet. But placed against such disappointments is the glorious R+H score, which carries all before it. Is there a more irresistible lump-in-the-throat anthem than “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (with due appreciation of “”Climb Every Mountain”)? The show ends with the song and as usual, I choked up.
“Carousel” runs through May 3 at the Civic Opera House 20 North Wacker Drive. Tickets start at $29. For schedule information ticket purchases call 312 827 5600 or visit www.lyricopera.org/carousel.
The show gets a rating of 3 stars April 12, 2015
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