College of Wooster OH (August 5th)—The final day of the on the 2016 season of the Ohio Light Opera and its third symposium on “Taking Light Opera Seriously” was marked by performances of the last two shows in this year’s repertoire, one of the major hits of the American Broadway stage (Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun) in the evening, preceded in the afternoon by a century-old show composed by the founder (for all practical purposes) of the modern musical comedy (Jerome Kern’s Have a Heart), making up the full complement of seven shows in the season’s repertory.
If that were not enough, the morning session included piano-accompanied surveys of two shows that opened successful on Broadway 100 years ago: Harry Tierney’s Follow Me (narrated by OLO’s artistic director Steven Daigle) and Victor Jacobi’s Sybil as adapted for Broadway from the Hungarian original, Szibill, narrated by Michael Miller, the chair of the OLO board of directors). Tierney is best known for his 1919 Irene, and its hit song “Alice Blue Gown,” and he also wrote songs for the Ziegfeld Follies, including its star Anna Held (who gets credit as co-lyricist in Follow Me). Viktor Jakobi (1883-1921) started off his career in Hungary with such success that he seemed likely to be part of the same firmament of Silver Age operetta composers as Lehár and Kálmán. Szibill (Sybil), produced in 1914, was a sensational hit in Hungary. Operetta historian Kurt Gänzl considers it a masterpiece. But a London production in 1914 was cancelled owing to the outbreak of World War I. Jakobi moved on to New York, where his luck changed very much for the worse. After a successful 1916 production of Sybil (with English lyrics by Harry B. Smith and Harry Graham), he never enjoyed another success, and died suddenly of illness at the age of 38.
The principal musical numbers of both shows were sung by members of the regular OLO company, doing double (or even triple) duty. As an example, baritone Nathan Brian had sung the dramatic lead role in Novello’s The Dancing Years the previous evening and took on the role of Lt Petrov in Sybil, though he was also scheduled to take the leading male roles in both Have a Heart and Annie Get Your Gun later in the day. As with all of the “salon concert” performances of the week, the singers were accompanied by Wilson Southerland.
Before the performance of Have a Heart, Rexton Bunnett gave a talk about P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote the book and lyrics with Guy Bolton. Few people realize that Wodehouse was active for many years writing for the Broadway stage, creating some of the screwball comedy plots of the shows that turned Broadway away from big Ruritanian operetta to the modern musical comedy.
Kern and Bolton produced Very Good, Eddie at the minuscule Princess Theatre (seating just 299 people) on 39th Street just off Sixth Avenue. The circumstances required a small cast, chorus, and orchestra, as well as a plot that seemed to fit on the postage-stamp sized stage. The solution was to write shows about everyday Americans involved in funny circumstances in their everyday life. No exotic foreign princesses risking misalliance with a commoner, a common subject for operetta. The result was little short of revolutionary: Lively, funny songs and situations, fast-moving plots reflecting modern American life. Kern’s shows inspired a whole generation of composers, explicitly including Rodgers and Gershwin. (In fact, Wodehouse wrote the book for Gershwin’s Oh, Kay!, which was produced at OLO in 2016.)
When Have a Heart opened originally on Broadway in 1917, it only ran for 76 performances, and there are no songs from the score that are known generally today as Kern hits (unlike, say, “They didn’t believe me” of 1914). But the score as a whole is deliciously charming, and a modern recording of the whole thing would surely bring some numbers to the top of the pile. In any case, the short New York run was not unusual in a day when many shows established themselves in the metropolis and then toured extensively—which is exactly what happened with Have a Heart. Two touring companies played the show in 36 states and 5 Canadian provinces. Meanwhile Kern was still busy—given the fact that before the end of 1917, he produces four more shows, including Oh, Boy! and Leave it to Jane.
The plot is filled with many of the comic misunderstandings that one finds often in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse. Potential lovers appear to be faithless; policemen or (as in this case) detectives prowl around trying to catch someone in malfeasance. The dialogue is witty and breezy. And, of course, all works out in the end.
Director Steven Daigle kept the rather wacky plot moving at a bright pace, aided by the set designs of Daniel Hobbs (a New York department store in Act I and a resort hotel with ocean view in Act II), the stylish period costumes by Hali Hutchinson, and lighting by Brittany Shemuga. The OLO’s music director J. Lynn Thomson conducted the orchestra, which used orchestral materials prepared for a Jerome Kern project of the Packard Humanities Institute.
Nathan Brian and Sarah Best, who had on the previous evening been the star-crossed lovers on Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years, appear as “Ruddy” Schoonmaker, the owner of the department store in which the first act takes place, and Peggy, his ex-wife, who started divorce proceedings when she found him with a former employee, Dolly Brabason (Tanya Roberts, played with man-catching blonde abandon) at the Oceanview Hotel and assumed they were sharing a room there—another couple separated by miscommunication, but one destined, in this case, to reunite. But first there are many misunderstandings that take place, creating a typically Wodehousian plot. Dolly has become a movie star and is returning to the east coast convinced that Ruddy is madly in love with her—a complication for his attempt to reconcile with Peggy. A pair of detectives, working different sorts of cases, skulks around suspiciously (Detective Baker, played by Royce Strider, is looking for a counterfeiter; Lizzie (Emily Hagens) has been hired by Peggy’s aunt and uncle to keep an eye on Ruddy.
Lizzie’s sweetheart Ted (Stephen Faulk) wishes to work for the same employer as she does. He asks the helpful elevator operator Henry (Kyle Yampiro), a sort of facotum at the hotel, about possible employment. When they are together, Ted and Lizzie sing a lilting waltz (“I’m so busy”), but most of the songs in Act I are given to Ruddy and Peggy, either to express their concern at the situation (Ruddy’s “Have a heart,” Peggy’s “Look in his eyes,” or their duets, “And I am all alone” and “The Road that Lies Before”), filled with the lyricism of Kern, whose gift for melody and sometimes surprising harmonic changes make him sound to my ears like the Schubert of the American musical theater.
There is a possible solution for the Dolly problem: Henry confesses that he is in love with her, Ruddy urges him to pursue her. Act II takes place at the Oceanview Hotel where, during its course, the mixups of rooms and partners (not to mention some potentially incriminating letters to Dolly that Ruddy wants desperately to recover) unrolls rather in the manner of a French bedroom farce, but the “right” couples get together in song (Ruddy and Peggy with “My wife, my man”; Ted and Lizzie with “You said something”). But the score at OLO has been filled with songs that were either cut from the original opening night or added later in the run, including “Can the cabaret” (Henry, Dolly, and the Maitre d’Hote), “It’s a sure, sure sign” (Dolly),
The brightness and humor of the book and lyrics, matched with Jerome Kern’s very attractive music, made for a work of wit and charm, one that could hardly have been more suitably cast and performed to project those qualities that marked the early masterpieces of the American musical comedy. Have a Heart is the third early Kern show to have been mounted at OLO (it was preceded by The Cabaret Girl in 2008 and Oh, Lady Lady! In 2014). I hope it is not the last.
For the participants in the symposium, the final show in the repertory was Irving Berlin’s most successful book show, Annie Get Your Gun, filled with more hit songs than almost any other Broadway show in history. In a sense it was altogether fitting to see it on the same day as Have a Heart, because Kern had been originally signed by the producers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, to write the score in September 1945, But in early November, Kern died suddenly under terrible circumstances (he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while walking in Manhattan with no identification; he was not identified for several days and lay in the hospital, an unknown old man, who died six days later).
In his place, Rodgers and Hammerstein offered the job to Irving Berlin, who was not at all sure the he was up to the task, especially writing songs about the American southwest with the proper tone and personality. But the cast (featuring Ethel Merman) and the production crew with Joshua Logan as director and a script by Herbert and Dorothy Fields was a major inducement. He spent the weekend of November 17 and 18 thinking about it, and by Monday he had a packet of songs already written (somewhere between three and five according to differing accounts). This seemed to prove Berlin’s ability in this genre. Yet he wanted another weekend to prove to himself that he had the goods; by the time it was over, a substantial part of the score was already present in outline. The rest of the score was written at almost the same pace. It opened four months later (March 25, 1946) in New Haven and in Broadway on May 16. The original run accrued 1147 performances, second only to Oklahoma for that period.
It may be hard to believe now, given the fact that so many songs from the show have long since become standards, but most of the critics were not especially enthusiastic when Annie Get Your Gun opened. The book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields was regarded as rather corny, old-fashioned, while Brooks Atkinson described the score as consisting of “undistinguished tunes.”
The critics had to eat their words before long, for Annie Get Your Gun lasted and lasted and lasted.
Of course it was the starring performance of Ethel Merman for whom the show was written that played a large role in its long run. And no performance of the show can succeed without a strong character singer in that part. Alexa Devlin has the stentorian voice and the pizzazz to carry the part superbly. But she can also be playful with her countrified drawl (“Doin’ What Comes Naturally” or “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun”) and sing with delicate sweetness when called for.
As a romantic counterpart, Nathan Brian made an excellent Frank Butler, tall and handsome, with a ringing baritone voice with which he could frighten the girls by describing his evil ways as a “bad, bad man.” And he could sing sweetly as one might desire when describing “The Girl That I Marry.” Berlin provided the principals with a series of romantic duets: “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “Moonshine Lullaby,” and “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” (added for a 1966 revival that brought Merman back to reprise one of her major roles), and the comic masterpiece “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
The rest of the cast was equally adept in their roles: Brad Baron as Buffalo Bill Cody, Kyle Yampiro at his manager, Charlie Davenport—who joined with Annie and Frank in the great march-hymn to the theater, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Kim Powers created the effective, straightforward set, with costumes designed by Myron Elliott and lighting by Brittany Shemuga. Jacob Allen was the stage director, and J. Lynn Thompson the musical director.
When the symposium ended on August 5, there was another week to go in the 2016 summer schedule in Wooster. One by one the seven shows came to their final performance, after which the entire company and crew had to strike the sets, clean and put away the costumes, all catalogued for future use (or rental to other companies putting on the show). This was no small task, because the costume shop had created 677 costumes for the eight-week season. By the day after the closing performance, August 13th, the actors and crew who came from elsewhere all had to be out of their dorm rooms at the College of Wooster (because the students were about to arrive. Some of the younger actors returned to academic programs (mostly in voice or theater) in colleges and universities and conservatories across the country, while several of them moved to music programs as new hires in the vocal department and others had positions in opera companies or touring shows.
In many respects, the Ohio Light Opera reminds me of a summer program I know well—the Tanglewood Music Center in Western Massachusetts, only with special emphasis on musical theater. Each summer an extraordinarily gifted group of singing and dancing actors arrives to be rehearsed by talented directors and conductors, while the backstage crew is busy finishing the sets and costumes for the seven shows that are to be rotated, day by day, during the run. They arrive talented to a high degree—and the leave with a considerable fund of experience in the particular branch of theater that attracts them here.
And, as at Tanglewwood, another crew—with some returnees—will assemble in 2017 to create once again a professional residential theater company of striking quality.
In the coming months Steven Daigle and consultants who work with him will choose the shows. Vocal auditions will be carried out in several parts of the company, and orchestral auditions will also be carried out, via submitted recordings. By sometime in the winter the repertory will be announced, and about the time spring arrives, the schedule will be firmed up an announced. Information on any aspcct of the coming season—auditions, schedules, ticket sales, lectures and possibly another symposium, can be found, once the information is announced, at www.OhioLightOpera.org.
Meanwhile, the resident staff and crew can enjoy a well-earned vacation.