REVIEW: Arizona Lady (Chicago Folks Operetta)

A Rootin’ Tootin’ Hungarian Cowboy Opera

Arizona Lady Cast

   
Chicago Folks Operetta presents
   
Arizona Lady
  
Music by Emmerich Kálmán
Translated by
Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov
Directed by
Bill Walters
Music-Directed by
Samuel-Hilaire Duplessis
at
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont  (map)
through August 1st  |  tickets: $25-$35   |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Even though it is ridiculously sentimental, watching Chicago Folks Operetta put on Emmerich Kálmán’s operetta Arizona Lady had me thinking of Bertolt Brecht. With this work, the Hungarian composer, Kálmán, sets up a counterfeit American landscape, much like Brecht placed In the Jungle of Cities and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in the exotic (to them) United States. The inhabitants of Kálmán’s Arizona proclaim that the state is full of silver, gold, and cowboy songs, instead of water shortages and racial animosities. In a way, director Bill Walters’ production is surreal and oddly captivating, mostly overcoming its amateurish missteps.

The plot follows the classic Viennese operetta structure, revolving around two pairs of lovers, one comic and the other a bit juicier (for the record, I saw the second cast for the show and the names reflect that). Lona (Juliet Petrus) rules over a ranch and possesses the mind of businesswomen, supposedly without any room for talk of love. Despite this, she is reluctantly attracted to the wandering, singing cowpolk Roy (Gerald Frantzen), offering him a job and the task of priming her horse, Arizona Lady (Maray Gutierrez), for the local race. This storyline is crisscrossed with the courtship between young shop-owner Nelly (Kellie Cundiff) and the son of a beef magnate/cattle “intern” Chester (Matthew Dingels). Horse thieves, the Kentucky Derby, law and order, escaping to Mexico, and Prohibition all stir up the love stories, resulting in a cute, if somewhat vapid, tale of the Old West that never existed.

This fictional world is actually very intriguing. Theatre celebrates unreality, so Kálmán’s West cobbled from Hollywood, Oklahoma!, and the opera halls of Hungary makes for a wholly unique theatrical experience. There’s plenty of guitar and saloon-style piano in the score, but this is joined by waltzes and Hungarian-folk melodies. Walters completely embraces the apparent contradictions, creating a universe that’s all its own. Part of August Tye’s great choreography is ripped from line-dance halls, while some of it smacks of traditional Eastern European dances. Yet all of it works.

While the cast tears up the score, the acting could be polished. Petrus dips in confidence and seems to rely on constant towel-snapping to conjure up Nona’s sassiness instead of letting the text do that for her. On the other hand, Dingels’ goofy mannerisms and genuine squareness may not be great acting, but could possibly be ingenious for the fumbling Chester. Rounding out the leads, Cundiff and Frantzen are fine if somewhat wooden. The supporting cast is pretty hit or miss. The best moments are little bits stitched in the script, like ranch-hands using a child to smuggle liquor past the Sheriff or someone yelling in the middle of a huge dance number, “Hey! I’m dancing!” like they just realized what was going on. Unfortunately, a lot of the comedy falls flat, and the transitions between dialogue and song are downright painful at times. The pace also falls slack in a couple of scenes. (Yes, I understand this is opera, but this light fare doesn’t feel like it should last three hours.)

Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov’s translation of the 1954 operetta, which has never seen an American production until now, is obviously done with a lot of love. While usually charming, the script occasionally gets too silly and audience interest flags. There is also some Spanish dialogue very awkwardly folded in. But they keep Kálmán’s somewhat bizarre world intact.

There are too many stale moments for this Arizona Lady to be completely satisfying, a problem for Glagov, Walters, and the cast. But there’s a lot of passion on-stage over at the Theatre Building. And any indie opera outfit, attempting to do something so grandiose on the budget of a storefront, has a special little piece of my heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

Arizona Lady poster

   
   

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REVIEW: The Philadelphia Story (Circle Theatre)

‘The Philadelphia Story’ haunted by ghosts of movies past

 

Kevin Anderson, Laura McClain, and Josh Hambrock

   
Circle Theatre presents
   
The Philadelphia Story
   
Written by Philip Barry
Directed by Jim Schneider
at Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison, Forest Park (map)
Through Sept. 5   |   Tickets: $20–$24 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Any production of The Philadelphia Story naturally evokes celluloid comparisons to Kathryn Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in the 1940 film. Inspired by the real life Main Line heiress Hope Montgomery Scott, the class-conscious play opened in 1939 with Hepburn as spoiled, self-righteous rich girl Tracy Lord — a role she reprised in the Oscar-winning film. The Philadelphia Story also formed the basis for the 1956 musical, High Society, so there are those movie memories to contend with, too.

Katelyn Smith, Jhenai Mootz, and Josh Hambrock Yet that shouldn’t mean a theater can’t put its own spin on the show. In its one big drawback, Circle Theatre’s production too often feels like a ghostly reenactment of the film.

Laura McClain, as Tracy, channels Hepburn for all she’s worth, while Josh Hambrock, as journalist Macauley "Mike" Connor, appears possessed by Stewart, with every drawl and facial twitch down pat. It’s uncannily fascinating, but I went to the theater to see a play, not to participate in a séance.

As Tracy’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, Kevin Anderson (not to be confused with Kevin Anderson), deserves kudos for not trying to reanimate Cary Grant. Unfortunately, his coolly puckish performance sometimes comes off as more smirking than suave. Moreover, his interactions with the others seem to accentuate their derivative mannerisms.

However, if you can get over the sense that you might just as well have stayed home with Netflix, Philip Barry’s dryly witty script transcends all.

On the verge of Tracy’s second marriage, Connor, who has become reluctantly infatuated, and Haven, with some help from Tracy’s smart-aleck kid sister (spunky, smut-faced Katelyn Smith), are bent on trying to prevent Tracy from wedding her stuffy, middle-class fiancé, George Kittredge (an appropriately stiff Luke Renn). The priggish Kittredge determinedly puts her on a pedestal. Though impatient with human frailties — the philandering of her father (Tom Viskocil), for example, and her former husband’s drinking — Tracy isn’t so sure she likes being cast as an ice goddess.

Josh Hambrock and Laura McClain Luke Renn, Laura McClain, Josh Hambrock, and Kevin Anderson

Bob Knuth’s elegant drawing-room set and Elizabeth Wislar‘s smart period costumes (particularly for lovely Jhenai Mootz, who portrays a world-weary Elizabeth Imbrie, the photographer who accompanies Connor to the Lords’ home) give us a handsome look back in time. Director Jim Schneider has wisely kept the original three-act format.

Some of the sensibilities behind this farce seem dated today, but it’s still an awfully funny comedy. If you aren’t bothered by ghosts, you’ll like this production fine.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Entire cast of Philadelphia Story - Circle Theatre - 006

 Entire Cast of "Philadelphia Story”   

 

     
     

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