The 2019 edition of the Ohio Light Opera, running between June 15th and August 10th, provided a bouquet of seven operettas and musicals covering, as usual, a wide range of periods and styles. But, for what I believe is the first time, the repertory is predominantly American, with material ranging from 1930 to 1987. Among non-American shows, two are British, and only one is continental—and that is an American premiere. I saw all seven shows in five days.
In most seasons, the dates of composition spread out more evenly, providing at least one 19th-century operetta in addition to the usual G&S, and usually one example from the early 20th century. But this year, the 19th century provided just the G&S show, while the company reached its most recent date yet, the late 1980s. Three shows arose in the early 1930s and two in the middle 1940s.
For the record, the repertory consisted of:
The Pirates of Penzance (Gilbert and Sullivan, English, 1880)
Girl Crazy (Gershwin, American, 1930)
Music in the Air (Kern-Hammerstein, American, 1932)
The Devil’s Rider (Kàlmàn, Viennese, 1932)
Perchance to Dream (Novello, English, 1945)
South Pacific (Rodgers and Hammerstein, American, 1947)
Into the Woods (Sondheim-Lapine, American, 1987)
Six of these joined the growing repertory that Ohio Light Opera has produced since its start in 1979 (now numbering 146 shows). The company started at the College of Wooster, in Ohio, as a professional Gilbert and Sullivan troupe founded by the late James F. Stuart (1928-2005), who had a long career as a singer in opera and operetta, as well as teaching musical theater first at the Boston Conservatory and later at the College of Wooster. Two years after its founding, the company began expanding with the major Viennese operettas (Strauss, Lehàr, von Suppé, Millöcker), French (Offenbach, Auber, Hahn), English (German, Monckton), and American (Herbert). Later on, the early American musical comedy, particularly as exemplified by Jerome Kern’s Princess Theater Shows. And a special tradition began when, as early as 1985, Emmerich Kàlmàn’s Countess Martiza was performed for the first time at OLO (it has since been repeated in five seasons); moreover, the company has now produced 13 of his operettas (counting the most recent this year), making OLO the most significant Kàlmàn house in the world.
I have been traveling to Wooster regularly since 2000, at first in brief visits to see just a few shows, but since 2014 I have chosen to go for a week at the very end of July, running into the beginning of August, in order to see all seven shows in the crowded space of four or five days, accompanied (in the years from 2014 to 2018) with a stimulating symposium under the umbrella title, “Taking Light Music Seriously,” which brought specialists in various aspects of the tradition from Germany, Austria, Holland, France, Hungary, England, New Zealand, and the United States to offer lectures on the topics of their special interest. These events also included recitals (with piano) by members of the performing company. These were generally organized by Michael Miller, the chair of the OLO board and founder of the Operetta Foundation, and included “Songs from the cutting room floor” (material removed from shows, or rewritten for use in a different show, and other sorts of unfamiliar reworkings).
In 2019 the company took a break from the intense activity of the symposia, and all they entailed, but they continued to offer, as a “lagniappe,” or bonus, a delightful two-hour recital featuring songs of the type just mentioned. (One of these answered a question I’d had for years: Everyone knows the words “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here” set to the chorus of pirates entering in the second act of The Pirates of Penzance, but the source of those words is generally unknown. Three of the men from the OLO company sang the version first published as an American popular song about the time of World War I, in which one Theodore Morse provided a verse for Sullivan’s refrain, and the whole thing bore lyrics by D. A. Esrom.
One more general comment before I move to the individual shows. In recent years the productions have shown a much more professional and varied approach to the dancing in the shows. This is largely the work of Spencer Reese, who arrived six years ago as a young company member with far more than the usual dancing talent. I was first especially impressed by his performance of the Fred Astaire role in Gershwin’s Oh, Kay! in 2015. I don’t think Astaire ever filmed the dances from this 1925 Broadway production, but I could easily imagine Reese as a representation of what they must have been like. By then he was choreographing a couple of the shows, but he quickly became the choreographer of the company, and his contribution this year to all seven shows was quite remarkable. Creating a range of dances from different ethnic traditions and different dance styles (folk dances, tap, ballroom, and verging on ballet), he has greatly enlivened the stage picture throughout the season. And he has taught all of these dances to the performers, only some of whom are especially trained in dance. As one of the conductors commented to me, it is especially useful that he is himself trained in music, as well as dance (he recently complete a D.M.A in voice at the University of Connecticut), because he can address musicians in terms they understand. I will comment on some of the dance elements in the specific reviews of the individual productions.
THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
Most people are familiar enough with the plot and character of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, so there is hardly need to summarize the plot. Two elements—in addition to the high quality of the singing and acting—made this quite possibly the most thoroughly satisfying G&S that I have seen in more than 50 years of listening, performing, researching, and editing their work: Ted Christopher’s excellent direction that kept things lively and moving, with clever use of the stage space (a set design by Charles Murdock) with a number of levels, which also helped the effect, and all this enlivened by the dancing for the pirates and the Major-General’s daughters, which was often more complex in both steps and patterns than most G&S productions are. J. Lynn Thompson conducted the OLO orchestra with élan especially in the operatic parodies scattered through the show. Part of the staging and singing that raised the comic level were the scenes that parodied grand opera. Sullivan had edited vocal scores of an entire series of the standard operas of the day, so that, when the situation warranted, he could draw upon the musical tropes and physical gestures of works known to a large proportion of his audience. Such moments included the Ruth-Frederick duet early in act one, when he spurns his old nursemaid as a romantic foil, or the heroic march (“Go, ye heroes, go to glory”) with which Mabel sends the timorous police off to battle with the pirates, suggesting Aida’s “Ritorna vincitor.” When Ruth and the Pirate King come to Frederic in Act II to entice him back to the pirate troupe, they respond to his warnings by singing “Have mercy on us”—as each holds a pistol to his head, a delightfully droll gesture. And the battle of the police and the pirates is wonderfully stylized.
Several principal characters were double cast. I heard the performers who are mentioned here. Chelsea Miller’s Mabel offered brilliantly showy coloratura in her waltz song “Poor wand’ring one”—and she added her own decorative traceries to the already effective part written by Sullivan, suggesting her character as that of a willing and able prima donna. Her “sisters” Edith, Kate, and Isabel (Abby Kurth, Yvonne Trobe, and Sadie Spivey) were charming ingenues.
Alan Smith’s tenor made for a manful Frederic with the dashing operatic personality required of that voice part. Brad Baron’s Pirate King was jovial and threatening by turns, and his associate, Samuel (George Marn) had a firm baritone voice in partying with the crew at the opening and in handing out implements of burglary in the second act. Hannah Holmes was a wonderful Ruth, first in her despair as Frederic sends her away, but especially in the chapel scene, where she delights in bringing him to heel with the news of his unfortunate birthday on February 29.
Boyd Mackus, in his 32nd season with the company, often cast in the patter roles, performed his usual delightful part both as singer and as the wily Major General. Ted Christopher was the sergeant of police, who blossoms in his comic songs in the second act, with sturdy baritone and thick cockney accent.
Costume designer Jennifer Ammons and lighting designer Tyler Quinn gave Charles Murdock’s set a colorful and atmospheric look. One delightful touch to the second act set, in the Major General’s chapel was so subtle it almost passed unnoticed. There were three mausolea set around the chapel, which seemed to be there mostly to break up the flat level of the stage. But there was a name apparently carved into the marble side of each one; a close look revealed that they were “GILBERT,” “SULLIVAN,” and “D’OYLY CARTE.”
There is not much likelihood that the works of G&S will fade from view any time soon, but it is especially the case, when they are performed in so lively and loving a production as this, that they will be with us far into the future.
Few shows of the 1920s and 1930s—even shows by George and Ira Gershwin—boasted as many hit songs as Girl Crazy, which included “Bidin’ my time,” “Embraceable you,” “I got rhythm,” and “But not for me,” to name just the best-known four. Few shows boasted two newcomers to the musical stage whose careers exploded more grandly or went farther than Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman. Few shows boasted a more amazing orchestra than Girl Crazy, which had in its pit rising stars of jazz and swing: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, “Red” Nichols, and Jack Teagarden! Moreover, few shows had as much dancing, in various styles, or as crazy and incomprehensible a plot!
Later film versions either cut most of the songs (Girl Crazy, 1932), or completely rewrote the book and replaced some of the songs with non-Gershwin numbers (Girl Crazy, 1943, with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney), or retitled it and almost completely rewrote the plot, keeping four songs (Where the Boys Meet the Girls, 1965, with Connie Francis and Harve Presnell). A Broadway show billed as “the new Gershwin musical” in 1992, Crazy for You, was a substantial reworking of Girl Crazy, with extra Gershwin hits not composed for the original show.
The Ohio Light Opera production used the original libretto (largely incomprehensible as it was), all the songs, and all the dance numbers, making it quite possibly the first real revival since the 1930s. The dance numbers were all designed and staged by Spencer Reese in various styles, including Mexican, “cowboy,” and an extensive tap dance, including a dance competition between Danny Churchill, the male lead (played by Reese himself) and the local postmistress, Molly Gray (the Ginger Rogers part, played by Hannah Holmes). One of the striking features of the dances in Girl Crazy is that they always included an extra “encore” dance whenever the audience applause for the first dance waned. This gives it a full three-hour running time (or perhaps a bit more), but the energy and variety of the dances kept the audience alert and responsive.
The set, designed by Kiah Kayser, featured a front wall (instead of a scrim or drop curtain) with workable doors, side exits, and lights in the windows that could be changed, for scenes taking place “in one” (at the front of the stage), especially including the repetitions of “Bidin’ my time” by the male quartet (Garrett Medlock, Tim McGowan, Diego Roberts Buceta, and Vincent Gover). It could also be raised out of sight, like a drop curtain, to reveal the main part of the stage, which mostly serves as the dude ranch in Custerville, Arizona (act 1), and the Hotel Las Palmas over the border in Mexico (Act 2).
The basic story is that wealthy New York playboy Danny Churchill is being sent by his father to a piece of the family’s property in Custerville, a town that has had no women in it (except the icy postmistress Molly Gray from the next town over) for decades. Danny rides out to Arizona in a New York taxi driven by Gieber Goldfarb (Kyle Yampiro). Danny decides to turn the property into a dude ranch, with cocktails, gambling, and a cohort of dancing girls to attract the crowds. The other major characters include the managers that Danny hires for his establishment: Kate Fothergill, a saloon singer (the Ethel Merman role, played by Yvonne Trobe) and her gambler husband Sam (Brad Baron) are constantly arguing, but Kate gets to sing “Sam and Delilah” (a torch number), “Boy what love has done to me,” a song of witty regret), and, of course, “I got rhythm.” There is a town bully, Lank Sanders (Aidan Smerud), who teams up later with Pete, proprietor of Custer House (Adam Wells), a pair of dance hall girls (Joelle Lachance, Abby Kurth), Sam Mason (Alan Smith), an unreliable city slicker from New York, a longtime rival of Danny’s in romantic matters, determined to take Molly away from him; he does his best to persuade Molly that Danny is seriously in love with Tess (Sadie Spivey), an old girlfriend who pursued him from New York. Sam promptly wins $6000 at the gambling table, which attracts a pair of crooks, determined to get that money.
The complicated plot involves scenes set in Arizona and others across the border in Mexico, and this is reflected in the music and dances. “The Land of the Gay Caballero” brought forth a Mexican style dance, while “Bronco Busters” and “When It’s Cactus Time in Arizona” featured “wild west” imagery and steps. The most spectacular number (which pleased the audience so much that it was repeated as an encore during the curtain calls) was an elaborate tap dance that begins with Danny and Molly dancing together, then trading off ever more challenging routines in competition. Their intensity gets a few other dancers to shadow them for a bit, and finally, as they reach peak challenge, all the characters on the stage begin an extensive tap number (with the virtuosity dominating in front. (It is worth noting the Fred Astaire worked on some aspects of the dance numbers of the original show; that was where he met Ginger Rogers—and the rest is history.)
I asked Spencer Reese after the performance about the big tap number. He said that only five members of the cast had tap experience, three men (including himself) and two women, one of whom was Hannah Holmes. They took the lead in the big number, but he taught the rest of the cast the basic tap routine to get them ready for that eye-popping number.
Myron Elliott’s costumes suggested the cowboys of 1930s western movies, far more decorative than real working cowboys would have been, as well as the Mexican characters and the arrivals from New York in their strictly urban outfits, until they get set up for their new lives. Daniel Huston’s lighting was extremely affective, passing through the various times of day and night, lit by the desert sun or the electric lights of a sand-filled desert town. J. Lynn Thompson led the orchestra in tasty performances of the Gershwin classics, which had the audience tapping toes and cheering—especially at the reprise of the big tap number after the official end of the show.
MUSIC IN THE AIR
Jerome Kern teamed up on several occasions with Oscar Hammerstein II, first in Sunny (1925), the epochal Showboat (1927), and Sweet Adeline (1929), when he teamed up with him again for Music in the Air. That was in 1932, the height of the Depression, and they decided that they wanted to place their story about a composer, a music publisher, and various musicians somewhere other than in the financially distressed publishing industry in New York. So Music in the Air was set in Bavaria, beginning and ending in an Alpine village, with the central core of the story in Munich.
The story opens as a school music teacher in a Bavarian village, Walther Lessing (Ted Christopher) , inspired by the singing of a bird outside his window, composes a song that he is sure will be a hit, once he gets a lyric added to it. (Indeed, it will be a hit: Kern and Hammerstein’s “I’ve told every little star.”) His daughter Sieglinde (Sadie Spivey), a young singer, has a schoolteacher friend, Karl Reder (Adam Wells), whom Lessing asks to invent a lyric. Delighted with the result, they decide to go to Munich, where Lessing’s old school friend, Ernst Weber (Spencer Reese), is a successful music publisher.
The music publisher’s office is a madhouse of activity. Weber is dealing with a new operetta being mounted, its author, Bruno Mahler (Brad Baron), and star Frieda Hatzfeld (Tanya Roberts), whose amorous relationship with Mahler is marked by frequent arguments. When Lessing, Sieglinde, and Karl arrive, they are at first shunted aside in the busy office, but once Mahler leaves, Frieda begins flirting with Karl. Later Sieglinde auditions her father’s song for Mahler, and he similarly flirts with her.
Much of the second act involves further complications between the two mixed-up couples. Frieda claims to be going to Berlin for a film opportunity, but she warns Karl that Mahler’s plan to make Sieglinde the new star of the operetta is just a ploy to seduce her. The operetta’s producer Kirschner (Jacob Allen) and his wife Lilli (Hannah Holmes) are also involved in the many problems involved in putting on the new show. Lilli sings one of the other best-remembered songs from the show, “In Egern on the Tegernsee,” Eventually Walther Lessing realizes he is out of his depth as a composer in the big city, and all three of the villagers return home. Bruno Mahler and Frieda have reconciled (he sings “The Song is You”), as have Sieglinde and Karl, who get engaged. Lessing is delighted to learn that his “hit song,” though it won’t appear in the operetta, has been published as sheet music and will earn him royalties.
One rather surprising—but very funny—character is a nameless female Bubble Dancer (Sarah Best) who appears several times in an athletic outfit while controlling an inflated ball, and playing no other role in the plot. Director Steven A. Daigle told a group of audience members at a pre-performance lecture that the presence of the Bubble Dancer was the main reason he wanted to do Music in the Air at OLO and was willing to wait seven years to get the performance rights. To be sure, though Best’s performance was delightfully funny, the score itself is full of rich melodies by Jerome Kern, who has always struck me as the Schubert of the American musical theater for his smooth way of slipping unexpectedly between major and minor, or between more distant harmonic combinations, during the course of his songs.
The musical score as a whole is not only filled with those Kern tunes, but it also is presented to a surprisingly large degree with continuous underscoring by the orchestra, rather as if it is accompanying a film. Occasionally this made it a challenge to understand all the dialogue, depending on where one was sitting in the theater or where the actors were standing on the stage. That may be why Music in the Air was the first OLO production I’ve seen that had supertitles at the top of the proscenium arch. They were not used for all the works performed this summer, but proved helpful in places for the few where they were used.
The production of Music in the Air at the Ohio Light Opera began and ended in the mountain village of Edendorf, where Kiah Kayser’s set evoked the beauty of the Bavarian Alps, Most of the show, however, takes place in Munich, in the publisher’s office and in various hotel rooms or theatrical dressing rooms as the two mismatched couples attempted to work out their various issues. The costumes varied between the traditional dress of the country people and the urbanized 1930s-period style of the theatrical people who were the principal characters; these were designed by Anne Medlock.
The orchestra was required to play a large part of the evening, including the songs and dances, of course, but also the extensive underscoring, in Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestration, conducted by Wilson Southerland. The show was such a success in 1932 that it was turned into a Hollywood musical two years later (one of the original actors from Broadway, the comedian Al Sheean, played his original role as Walter Lessing). That version was much abridged, running only about half the three-hour time of the Broadway version, though it is quite similar in plot and principal songs. Unfortunately compared to the Broadway show, which ran 342 performances, a good run for the day, the film was a flop, losing almost $400,000.
Despite its success in 1932, Music in the Air is one of those Kern shows filled with wonderful music that has almost never been since the original run, so the chance to hear and set it complete, in such a fine production, was a special treat.
THE DEVIL’S RIDER
The operettas of Emmerich Kàlmàn are not as well known in the United States as are those of his contemporaneous colleague and rival Franz Lehàr. I have long been a devotee of operetta, but I had not known any of Kàlmàn’s work until I spent three months in Vienna in 1976 as a Dartmouth professor supervising a class of 20 students spending a foreign study term there. During that time, I saw both Die Csàrdàsfürstin (The Gypsy Princess) and Gräfin Maritza (Countess Maritza), which so delighted me that I immediately bought scores and recordings. But even these are little known in this country.
But the two just mentioned—the composer’s most popular works—first ran at the Ohio Light Opera in 1985 and 1986, and both have retumed several times since. But more surprising—and delightful—is the fact that, in the 21 years since 1998, OLO has produced eleven further Kàlmàn shows, many of them American premieres. This summer the choice was Der Teufelsreiter (The Devil’s Rider, the last operetta Kàlmàn composed before leaving Austria, first for Switzerland and later for America, where he remained throughout the war. The English translation of the operetta and direction of the staging was by Steven A. Daigle.
The Devil’s Rider is a quasi-historical operetta based on incidents that took place in Vienna and Bratislava (known at the time by the German name Pressburg) in the second quartet of the 19th century, when Ferdinand was the emperor of Austria, but the government was run by the dictatorial Prince Metternich.
The title character is a cavalry captain, Count Sàndor, a brilliant horseman and patriotic Hungarian during the time that Hungary remained part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kàlmàn’s earlier operettas had often been filled with the harmonics and rhythms of his native Hungary, but this one is also overtly patriotic, recalling the effort of the Hungarians to gain a measure of independence from Vienna (a freedom that only came at the end of the First World War).
Captain Sàndor (played by Benjamin Dutton) is a historical character about whom books were published, sometimes with illustrations to describe and display his astonishing feats of horsemanship, such as the one the begins the story of the operetta: a seemingly impossible action leaping over the carriage of the Empress Carolina Pia (Yvonne Trobe) without falling off or causing his mount to break a leg. (Naturally this happens offstage, but it is the talk of the opening scene.) Rather less likely is his description of the fact that, as he flew over the carriage, he locked eyes with those of a beautiful woman, unknown to him, with whom he fell in love immediately. The girl in question turns out to be Leontine (Tanya Roberts), the daughter of Prince Metternich (Boyd Mackus). She, by typical romantic convenience, caught his eye during his flying leap and fell equally in love with him. The problem is that her father, Prince Metternich, is unsympathetic to the Hungarian cause and intends to marry her to Prince Karl of Monaco (Tim McGowan). But Karl himself is a feckless young man loves a ballerina, Anina (Sadie Spivey), who is not aware of his title. To further complicate matters, when Count Sàndor presents a petition requesting greater Hungarian freedom to the Empress, she, too, becomes enamored of him and seems open for a little romantic adventure. All of the principals were historical characters, and the general outline of the plot (the love of Sàndor and Leontine, the press for greater freedoms for Hungary, Metternich’s resistance to that) was also generally accurate, at least in operetta terms.
Metternich is furious at Sàndor’s boldness and decrees that he must spend three months in the Spielberg prison in Bratislava. Prince Karl’s father, King Honorius of Monaco, who has last a fortune in gambling, wishes his son to marry Leontine as a way of re-establishing his fortune. Karl introduces his father to the woman he really loves, Anina. Honorius is smitten with her himself. He may have no money, but he has the power to elevate the ballerina to the aristocracy as a countess, with gives her many more options in life. Eventually the Empress realizes that Sàndor will not be her lover, and he and Leontine end up together (no thanks to her father).
By 1932, when Kàlmàn wrote this show, he had already begun introducing modern jazz-inflected songs into his shows. (In fact, the main plot of The Duchess of Chicago  was a dispute between a European prince, who loved to waltz and despised jazz, and a Chicago heiress, who found the waltz hideously out of date and considered the anti-jazz prince a stick-in-the-mud.) So, although The Devil’s Rider is set 100 years earlier than the date of composition, Kàlmàn fills the score (as he had been doing for several years) with foxtrots, tangos, a kind of rumba, along with the usual waltzes and marches. One lively rumba, for example, with a notable saxophone part comes near the end: this was “You got the features,” sung with lively gusto by the ballerina and her father-and-son suitors (Sadie Spivey, Tim McGowan, and Kyle Yampiro). Both pairs of lovers have several duets, but those of Leontine and Sàndor are far more in the traditional operetta waltz tradition than those of Karl and Anina. Sàndor’s fellow Hungarian officers have a stirring battle song (“We lead the charge”) to establish their prowess at the beginning, and everyone can be assumed to take part in the ultra-Hungarian dance, the “Grand Palotàs de la Reine,” which serves as the entr’acte before the last scenes.
The sets by Daniel Hobbs and costumes by Jennifer Ammons captured the feel of 19th-century royalty, with palaces and costumes royal and military, to say nothing of the Hungarian colors (red, white, green) that the patriotic soldiers and political representatives wore. Brittany Shemuga’s lighting designs were always effective for both day and night scenes indoors or out. Conductor Steven Byess was on point with the various musical styles that Kàlmàn wrote.
The political element of The Devil’s Rider makes the operetta rather less lush in romantic emotion than many other Kàlmàn works, but the theme was clearly important to him, and the result includes humor and romance as well.
PERCHANCE TO DREAM
Three years ago, the Ohio Light Opera offered a show by Ivor Novello (1893-1951) for the first time, his most famous work, The Dancing Years. That was essentially an American premiere, at least in the way the Novello composed it, with a plot that ends grimly in the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938, the year before the show was written. Many productions over the years omitted or reworked that ending, which was considered too recent and too dark for a musical. The OLO production included those scenes, which gave a poignancy to the ending that brought a dreamlike recollection of the first act, under happier circumstances in 1911. The result was a show that left few eyes dry and that attracted an enthusiastic response from audiences, to whom Novello’s name, as well as his music, with few exceptions, are little known here.
Novello was a man of amazing talents: a brilliant pianist, a highly successful composer of songs starting in his teen years and lasting until his rather early death, a handsome screen (Hitchock’s Lodger) and stage actor from the 1920s again to his death, and a much admired composer of operettas, or, rather, plays with music, because the songs included in these shows never included one for the lead actor (himself), and rarely included extensive ensemble numbers, but most often consisted of solo numbers for the principal female characters and occasions duets or ensembles in which the different characters sang successively. His songs became so popular that since his death the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Actors (BASCA) has bestowed the Ivor Novello Award on the song voted as the best of the year.
Novello wrote both the book and music for most of his shows; his regular lyricist was Christopher Hassall. But in Perchance to Dream, with a title borrowed from Hamlet, he did all three. As with The Dancing Years, this later show—a huge success in the West End in 1945, running more than 1000 performances—is essentially a play with songs, a kind of fantasy or ghost story taking place in a ancestral home over an extended period, with Act 1 set in 1818, most of Act 2 in 1843, and the final scene in the 1930s. The actors performing in each act are related to or descended from the same actors who appeared in the other acts.
Set designer Daniel Hobbs created a single architectural space that changes character in decoration and furnishing to reflect instantly the different periods, while Charlene Gross’s costumes make the same sort of move through time to reflect the social fashions of the various periods. And Daniel Huston’s lighting also moves forward in time, arriving at the “modern” electrified world for the final scene. Steven Byess, conducting the orchestra, supplied the moods and colors for periods from the Regency era to the “modern” day.
Because the three periods in which the story plays stand so far apart chronologically, each actor’s entrance presents him or her as a different personage, which complicates the telling of the plot. The opening act features an inveterate gambler, Sir Graham Rodney (Jacob Allen), who is awaited at his ancestral home Huntersmoon by a group of mischievous male friends and his mistress Lydia (Sarah Best). She is concerned about his well-being, since a highwayman, “Frenchy,” is supposedly nearby. Rodney is not happy to learn that his gorgon of an aunt, Lady Charlotte Fayre (Julie Wright Costa), is soon to arrive with her daughter Melinda (Chelsea Miller) and nephew William Fayre (Tim McGowan). They hope to take over Huntersmoon from the impoverished Rodney, who expresses his disdain for his wealthy relatives by wagering that one of his friends, Sir Amyas Wendell, can successfully seduce Melinda during their stay. Lydia attempts to dissuade Rodney from making the bet, which is both distasteful and risks money he does not have. When the trio of relatives arrives, they report that they have been held up by “Frenchy,” who stole a famous family necklace that Melinda was wearing. Rodney is struck by Melinda at this first meeting and promises that he will recover the necklace before the week is out, on her 21st birthday.
By the second act, Huntersmoon is now owned by Aunt Charlotte and William Fayre whose son Valentine is played by the same actor who was Rodney (Jacob Allen). A young woman named Veronica (Lydia’s lovechild by Rodney, played by Sarah Best) applies for a position in Valentine’s chorus. The strange attraction between them soon leads to marriage. But her old school-friend Melanie (played by Chelsea Miller) sets her hooks on Valentine.
In the final scene, almost 90 years later, the house is owned by Bay, the grandchild of Rodney and Veronica. The “ghosts” of the past, represented by strong feelings of attraction between the several characters, who have been seeking their own desires, with greater or lesser success over more than a century, are finally laid to rest. The complex interweaving of the same actors in different parts with conflicting emotions makes the plot a very tricky matter to get straight. But Novello’s music provided songs that fit the romantic moods.
Although there are occasionally songs for male characters in Novello’s shows, the fact that he was the non-singing lead meant that the juicy bits went to the sopranos and altos. Probably the most popular song from the show was one that Novello had written as a separate number some time before for his American friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, when they were visiting him. The lilacs were in bloom, and that motivated the exquisite duet “We’ll gather lilacs,” sung as a duet for Veronica and Mrs. Bridport in the second act. It became far and away the biggest hit of the show.
Lydia’s expression of passion at the beginning of the show, “Love is my reason for living,’ is a melting waltz. Melody’s “When I curtsied to the king” has something of the air of Regency London. Ernestine (Yvonne Trobe) sang the elegant waltz “Highwayman Love” with grace and verve. The entire ensemble scintillated with the ballet “The Triumphs of Spring,” which ends the first act. The wedding scene and a lively dance, “The Glo-Glo,” are lively highpoints in the second act, suggesting a rather more modern period than some of the other songs. The finale of the show, taking place in the 1930s, nonetheless recalls elements from earlier generations in a kind of ghostly summation, an unusual form of closure in this “spirited” show.
Surely we all know the plot of South Pacific, one of the most successful of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s string of great shows, and only the second Broadway show, after Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing, to win the Pulitzer Prize. The book on which the musical is based, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, also won a Pulitzer Prize. The Ohio Light Opera opened the season with it and played it eleven times, more than any other show this summer. I saw the ninth of these twelve performances, and the Freedlander Theater at the College of Wooster was still packed to the gills.
It is common practice for the Ohio Light Opera to double-cast the principal parts in several shows, especially those that get a larger number of performances, both, I assume, to spread the goodies around among the talented actors, to give more experience to some of the younger actors, and as a safety element in case anyone is somehow injured. In any case I saw one cast, and the actors that I mention playing the doubled roles of Nellie Forbush, Emile deBecque, and Lt. Joe Cable were the three in that performance. Most of the rest of the company accommodated the large number of other roles.
The action takes place in a naval base on an exotic island in the South Pacific during World War II. Most of the characters are sailors or nurses posted there. The two love stories, that between the older French planter Emile De Becque and the nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush, and another one between the Tonkinese girl Liat and Lt. Joe Cable, almost falter for the same reason: the supposed impossibility of marriage between persons of a different race. In the first case, it is the former marriage of De Becque with an island woman, now deceased, and his two children by her that makes the southern girl Nellie uncomfortable at the prospect. And Cable, too, has a girlfriend back home, of his own class and station, and at first, he refuses to think about marrying Liat.
This theme was daring for the time, when some thirty-six U.S states still forbade interracial marriage. In some places in the south there were objections to the song “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” which expressed Hammerstein’s own strong feelings about the pointlessness of racial prejudice. He actually wrote the song as a message to his good friend Mary Martin, who was from Texas and arrived in New York with the standard prejudices of the day. She recalled, after Hammerstein’s death, that she had once expressed misgivings when she learned that he was attending a wedding of a couple who were of different races. He told her, “Mary, you’ve just been taught wrong, and someday I’ll write you a song about it.”
The OLO production was singularly beautiful. Daniel Hobbs’s set, with the Pacific Ocean and a colorful sky interrupted by the peak of Bali Ha’i, the mountain island a short distance off shore, provided the workspace for the sailors and nurses, while the spacious veranda of Emile DeBecque’s home provided a beautiful site for their love story to unfold. The little stage on which Nellie and Billis mount the Thanksgiving entertainment rotates to offer both the “theater” where the audience will enjoy the show, and the backstage where certain plot elements unfold. The bedroom in Bloody Mary’s house And the small office where Capt. George Bracket (Ted Christopher) and his men plan for the deployment of Cable and DeBecque to report on Japanese ship movements is moveable on stage, but suggests the bare construction of the buildings designed purely for practical military use.
Some of the costumes, naturally, are cut-and-dried military uniforms, whether of sailors, Seabees, or nurses. Contrasting to these in Anne Medlock’s costume plot are the gorgeous colorful native dress of the Tonkinese islanders. Brittany Shemuga’s lighting design created the bright sunshine of the tropical beach and the dark nighttime of emotionally difficult scenes in strong contrast. Spencer Reese’s dances brought on the energetic, needy men dramatically in “There is nothing like a dame” and, by turns, the nurses teasing Nellie by repeating “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair.”
The singing was top-notch, from Jocelyn Hanson’s bright and clear Nellie Forbush, whether she was falling confusedly in love, washing her hair, or singing the song “Honeybun” in drag as a sailor in the Thanksgiving show. Brad Baron had a tough model to follow as Emile DeBecque, because almost everyone who knows the show at all well has heard Ezio Pinza singing his material; but he did a fine job with his strong bass voice. Michelle Pedersen was very funny as Bloody Mary, in both acting and singing with her pidgin English. Kyle Yampiro was hysterical as Luther Billis, always getting into trouble. Tim McGowan’s Stewpot made the most of his low range in his one prominent solo moment. Benjamin Dutton as Lt. Joe Cable was passionate in his wooing of Liat (Lauren Nash Silberstein) as well as in his calling out the evils of prejudice. The OLO orchestra, under the direction of J. Lynn Thompson, sounded especially rich and well blended in Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestration. Jacob Allen’s direction hit the comic moments as well as the serious ones dealing with prejudice, war, and life and death very effectively, ensuring that the packed audience thoroughly enjoyed itself.
INTO THE WOODS
Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 show Into the Woods is, by nearly 20 years, the most recent Broadway show produced at the Ohio Light Opera, and the first by Sondheim (not counting his lyrics for Gypsy, mounted in 2010). It is a complex show, both in the intricacy of its plot, a mashup of some of the most famous fairy tales, and in the interplay of the characters in rapidly changing situations on stage. Quite aside from the brilliant complexity of the piece, which Steven A. Daigle said he has considered programming for several years, Into the Woods probably works for OLO because they have a body of actor-singer-dancers who can benefit from a show with such a large number of roles to be played.
The set, by Daniel Hobbs, was flexible and colorful in the shadows cast on the back wall through the silhouetted intertwined trunks of the trees that suggest the wood. Anne Medlock’s costumes ranged from the rustic clothes of the Baker and his wife, and Jack and his mother, to the elegant formal gowns of Cinderella and her stepsisters on the way to the ball. The lighting design by Brittany Shemuga allowed elements of the story to take place on many parts of the stage and in many times of day and night.
The music of Into the Woods contains some of Sondheim’s most complicated passages, especially in the exposition at the opening, in which lines, or fragments of lines—often only a few words, pass from character to character at a rapid pace in a kind of speak-song, with the orchestra (conducted by J. Lynn Thompson) offering a constant rhythmic background that sometimes makes it difficult to pick up detail, especially in a classic theater not designed for electronic enhancement and with a company not equipped with mikes. Thus, some of the words were lost in the orchestra, even though it was a smallish ensemble, because it was predominantly winds (saxophones!) and brass, rather than the quieter strings of classic operetta.
The basic story (an invented one, mixed in with the familiar fairy tales) involves a Baker (Jacob Allen in the performance I saw) and the Baker’s wife (Sarah Best), who are childless, owing to a curse cast on them by a witch (Yvonne Trobe). She offers to remove the curse if they can locate for her four special items (each connected with one of the fairy tales). It becomes clear in the opening—through the intervention of a narrator (Ted Christopher), who later returns as “the Mysterious Man”—that everyone has wishes in their lives, and each one is seeking to fulfill that wish as a principal element of the plot. The four items that the childless couple seek are a “cow as white as milk,” owned by Jack (Spencer Reese), he of the beanstalk), the cape of Little Red Riding Hood (Sadie Spivey), the hair of Rapunzel (Ivana Martinic), and a slipper from the foot of Cinderella (Hillary Koolhaven). As the Baker, later joined by his wife, begin searching for these four items, the other four fairy tales—and all their characters—intertwine with their story: the wolf (Brad Baron) who pursues Red Riding Hood and her grandmother (Michelle Pedersen); Rapunzel’s prince (Aidan Smerud); Cinderella’s parents (Charles Piper and Lauren Nash Silberstein), step-sisters (Abby Kurth and Joelle Lachance) and prince (Benjamin Dutton); and two classic fairytale figures who play smaller roles, Snow White (Elizabeth Perkins) and Sleeping Beauty (Kelly Curtin).
The first half of the play is a surprise, because everyone gets their wish before intermission. (School productions of Into the Woods, which are fairly numerous, perform only this act.) In the second act, those happy people learn that the easy solutions were not always lasting; complications and difficulties, accidents and injuries, pain, and even death are involved in the full working out of the story. All in all, Into the Woods is one of the most complex musical shows I have ever seen (whether in the original Broadway run or at the Ohio Light Opera). Sondheim’s lyrics are renowned for their wordplay that sometimes makes them hard to understand at a single hearing, though the sound of them ripples through the theater nonetheless, and they are increasingly transparent with rehearings. Though it set a considerable challenge to the company, they produced an effective, skillful, and beautiful show.
During the course of the fall, the list of seven shows to be produced in 2020 will be established. Auditions will be scheduled in several cities around the country, to be completed before the end of the year. The actual performance schedule for the Freedlander Theater next summer is announced about the beginning of spring—and the forty-second season of the Ohio Light Opera will open about the middle of June. The 2019 season was exceptionally satisfying; I can’t wait to learn what is coming next.