REVIEW: The Girl of the Golden West (Lyric Opera)

  
  

Sheriffs! Bandits! Damsels! Passion! What’s not to love?

  
  

Act 3 of "Girl of the Golden West," playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest

  
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
  
The Girl of the Golden West
   
Composed by Giacomo Puccini  
Libretto by
Carlo Zangarini and Guelfo Civini
Directed by
Vincent Liotta
at
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive (map)
through Feb 21  |  tickets: $56-$217  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I love a good Western. That may come as a surprise to some but maybe more of a surprise is the idea of a great Western opera – in Italian. Giacomo Puccini’s fascination with the American West is gloriously displayed in the Lyric Opera production of La Fanciulla Del West (or The Girl Of The Golden West). My dad used to call Westerns ‘horse operas’ because of all of the drama, brawling, greed, and damsels in distress. Luckily for us, Puccini’s Minnie is no mere damsel-in-distress when embodied by the fabulous soprano Deborah Voight.

Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt in the "Girl of Golden West", playing through February 21st at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan RestMs. Voight emanates strength with a healthy dose of ‘don’t mess with me’, making one of the great entrances in an opera – shooting off two rounds from her pistol to break up a fracas at the Polka saloon. Puccini’s interest in the “Wild West” was piqued by the European tours of the Buffalo Bill Western shows that included sharpshooter Annie Oakley. The deal was sealed, then, when – on a visit to New York – Puccini attended the Broadway play Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco.

Ms. Voight’s Minnie has just enough brass and fire to play with the boys and fend off the lascivious charm of the sheriff Jack Rance, played by baritone Marco Vratogna. Mr. Vratogna’s baritone is sexy and sinister. Rance is a sheriff and a gambler who thinks he has a direct line on Minnie’s virtue. Vratogna channels the great Yul Brynner with a shaved head and piercing intense gaze. I wondered if Brynner had modeled his Gunslinger on Jack Rance in the 1973 science fiction Western “Westworld”.

In every Western there must be an outlaw, especially if the bad guy is a smoldering misunderstood one. Enter the great tenor Marcello Giordani as Ramerrez aka Dick Johnson the hunted leader of a murderous gang of thieves out to steal the gold from this mining backwater.

Mr. Giordani has a gorgeous voice with velvety tones that never border on the strident or maudlin. He is a wonderful counterpoint to Ms. Voight’s powerful and clear soprano. Their acting is top notch in portraying two thunderstruck lovers. Voight’s bedroom eyes and womanly countenance enhance her performance. Meanwhile Giordani is quite entrancing and smoldering as her true love enraptured at the thought of one kiss from Minnie.

     
Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt in the "Girl of Golden West", playing through February 21st at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest Act 1 of Girl of the Golden West playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest
Debra Voigt with the men of the camp in Act 3 of "Girl of the Golden West" at Lyric Opera. Photo by Dan Rest Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt in the "Girl of Golden West", playing through February 21st at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest

Mr. Vratogna (Sheriff Rance) and Ms. Voight have an excellent chemistry as well. Sheriff Rance’s intentions are less than honorable. He has a wife and Minnie is more of a trophy to be captured. There is a tense scene with Rance trying to force himself on Minnie and Ms. Voight’s portrayal is explosive in rebuffing him.

The supporting cast of “Fanciulla” is a combination of wonderful voices and fine acting. David Cangelosi is excellent as Nick the Polka bartender. He is a perfect comic relief as he pits the miners against one another in thinking they are at the top of the list for Minnie’s affections. Craig Irvin has a beautiful voice and excellent stage presence as Ashby the Wells Fargo man. I loved the portrayal of Sonora by the baritone Daniel Sutin. He has an exceptionally expressive visage to accompany the voice.

Puccini was my first exposure to opera with a Lyric production of La Boheme back in the 1970’s. His sense of theatre and drama are incomparable. He composed the lush and sweeping tragedies Tosca (recently produced at Lyric ★★★½) and Madama Butterfly. His works infuse humor, irony, and a wonderful sexiness to his characters for which I am grateful. He consistently wrote wonderful roles for women in particular. In “Fanciulla”, the role of Minnie is the only major female among at least forty men on the stage. It’s a powerhouse role to be undertaken by only the best and that is Deborah Voight.

Marco Vratogna, Marcello Giordani in "Girl of the Golden West" at Lyric Opera. Photo by Dan Rest.In my opinion, Puccini is the greatest theatrical composer history in history, and many have given homage or outright plagiarized his work. The Puccini estate sued Andrew Lloyd Webber over blatant lifts from “Fanciulla” in his version of The Phantom of The Opera – and the estate basically won, as Webber settled out of court. I also feel that Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer owe a debt to Puccini for the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers score as well. Puccini’s rich and sweeping washes of sound are perfect for the Technicolor epics of John Ford and Stanley Donen, and – had Puccini he lived further into the 20th century – he  may have been witness to his influence on the American film soundtrack in Douglas Sirk melodramas and film noir classics.

The conductor for the evening was Sir Andrew Davis, who led the orchestra with command and joyful gusto. He has such joy for the music and that translates into an overall beautiful production. The Lyric is also gifted with the legendary Harold Prince as the original producer of “Fanciulla” in 1978 in Chicago. The director Vincent Liotta previously worked with Mr. Prince and has once again directed an excellent production.

Take the time to get acquainted with the treasure that is Chicago’s Lyric Opera. This is theatre and music that has persevered because of its beauty and soul-touching quality. It’s a chance to get dressed nice, put on your Sunday manners, and sit in one of the world’s great opera houses. Brava! Bravo! Te amo Maestro Puccini!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

Act 1 of "Girl of the Golden West" at Lyric Opera. Photo by Dan Rest

     
     

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REVIEW: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Drury Lane)

 

Dynamic choreography, rousing leading lady save flawed musical

 

 (L-R) Cara Salerno, Vanessa Panerosa, Amber Mak, Hallie Cercone, Abby Mueller, Katie Huff, and Amanda Kroiss star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

        
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
   
Book by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Music/Lyrics by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn and Johnny Mercer
Directed by Bill Jenkins
Musical Direction by
Roberta Duchak
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

In the 1954 movie musicalSeven Brides for Seven Brothers”, when men kidnap women and trick them into marriage, it’s not Stockholm syndrome, it’s love. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is one of those movie musicals that is a product of its time, when women were looked at as little more than glorified housekeepers and baby makers, born to do the will of their man. When Adam Pontipee (Steve Blanchard) deceives the sassy Milly (Abby Mueller) into marrying him, his six brothers set out to capture wives for themselves, ambushing six town girls and throwing them in the back of their wagon. It’s offensive, but the music is jovial and melodic, the dancing is energetic and plentiful, and the film’s leading man Howard Keel’s booming voice and charming smile make it difficult to despise the chauvinistic Adam.

(L-R) Richard Strimer (Benjamin) and Abby Mueller (Milly) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett BeinerMy problems with the stage adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers arise from its attempts to flesh out the characters, which sounds like a good thing but ends up backfiring by making them even shallower. The solos do very little to make you sympathize with the characters, with Milly’s “One Man” beginning as a condemnation of her husband’s trickery before devolving into a tribute to female subservience. Conversely, Adam’s big Act Two moment of redemption “Where Were You?” attempts to justify his sexism by giving him a daddy complex, blaming his actions on his absent father instead of taking responsibility himself. It’s not difficult to assume that Adam’s behavior is a product of his environment, but when it is put into song it just makes the already unlikable character seem pathetic. Blanchard’s vocals don’t help matters, lacking the timbre and strength expected from an 1850 frontiersman. And while the added ensemble numbers manage to evoke the musical style of the film, the solos and smaller group sequences have a contemporary feel that is out of place with the rest of the show’s classic musical theater sound.

The highlight of the production is easily Milly and her relationship with her six brothers-in-law. Mueller’s crystal clear tone and powerful belt make her musical numbers stand out, and she has great chemistry with her new relatives as she assumes a dominating mother position in the household. Watching the brothers transform under Milly’s feminine influence is a joy, from learning to dance in “Goin’ Courtin’” to finally appreciating their women in the heartfelt “Glad That You Were Born.” With the brothers, there is evidence of a struggle between the uncivilized way they’ve been brought up and the restraint that makes for successful courting. “We Gotta Make It Through The Winter” is a hilarious exclamation of horny frustration, but it is followed by Daniel (William Travis-Taylor) and Frank (Brandon Springman) ruminating on the somber effects of loneliness in the beautiful “Lonesome Polecat.”

 

(L-R)  Abby Mueller (Milly) and Steve Blanchard (Adam) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner (L-R) Richard Strimer, Jarret Ditch, William Travis Taylor, Chris Yonan, Brandon Springman and (back) Zach Zube star in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Photo by Brett Beiner.

The brothers learning to dance comes in handy for Tammy Mader’s intense, dynamic choreography. Maybe the reason Adam and Milly’s romance never blossoms on stage is because they don’t have a nice dance together like the brothers and their brides. There isn’t much depth to these characters and their affection for each other, but the substance appears in their dancing, when the chemistry really ignites. The extended town dance sequence in Act I is a mesmerizing affair, albeit a little chaotic and unclear at times, while an Act II all-bride dream ballet brings some sensuality to the affair.

Like the film, this production is propelled by its dancing, but bodies in movement can’t overcome all the flaws of the writing. The changes to the film give the story a more modern context, and the attempt to psychoanalyze the characters through song removes much of the musical’s charm. Drury Lane’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a polished, well-performed production, but the questionable source material prevents it from rising to true greatness.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

(L-R) Chris Yonan, Hallie Cercone, Jarret Ditch, and Cara Salerno star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

 

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REVIEW: Sweet and Hot (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Sweet, Hot, and Effective

 

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Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents
  
Sweet and Hot: Songs of Harold Arlen
   
Adapted by Julianne Boyd
Directed by
Fred Anzevino
at
No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through August 8th  | 
tickets: $25- $45  | more info 

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Director Fred Anzevino and his Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre work best when they keep things simple. Evita and Chess succeeded so well because they masterfully pared down these sprawling musicals to fit in their beloved No Exit Café. Sweet and Hot is driven by a much more minimal concept—the revue involves a sextet of crooners belting out the greatest hits collection of songsmith Harold Arlen. While  Anzevino’s production lacks depth, the tunes are beautifully sung and concisely delivered. Even in a room full of theatre critics on a hot June evening, the romance in the candlelit Rogers Park storefront was palpable.

sweet-and-hot-03Sweet and Hot is Theo Ubique’s most recent addition to a long line of revues focusing on a single composer (past honorees include Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel). Instead of piecing together his own collage of songs, Anzevino relies on a prefabricated set-list gathered by Julianne Boyd. It sounds like an opened time capsule revealing some of the best compositions of the first half of the 20th Century. The talented cast pipes out numbers like “Blues in the Night” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” with a refreshing amount of energy, blowing off any dust these famous melodies have gathered.

To ratchet up the intimacy, Anzevino tosses out most of the band, saving only the piano. Musical director Steve Carson rearranges the pieces to accommodate. The result is delightfully straightforward, imparting the cozy, informal feeling of a couple of friends singing around an upright.

Decked in ‘40s attire, the cast of six all have distinguishable takes on their pieces. The highlight here is Bethany Thomas, who crams the tiny space with passion and bravado during the slow-burning “Stormy Weather” and “The Man That Got Away.” She is joined by the glamorously blonde Stephanie Herman and the adorable Sarah Hayes. The Gentleman Trio comprises of (usually) gloomy Kristofer Simmons, dashing Eric Martin, and the boyish Eric Lindahl. One of the most interesting aspects of the production is that the over-the-top optimistic numbers (“Happy As the Day is Long,” “Get Happy”) all have a tinge of delusion here, giving them a heftier dramatic weight. It isn’t completely nailed down, but it gives them a little subtext. However, the portrayals overall are pretty shallow and mostly rely on jazz club-ish charisma and emotional stakes. There isn’t really any through-line or character in the piece; the cast sort of musters up whatever mood the songs require. A little more dramatic cohesion would make the show feel less like a recital and more like poignant, vibrant theatre.

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Along with lyricists such as E.Y. Harburg, Johnny Mercer, and Ira Gershwin, Arlen (best known for penning the melodies of “The Wizard of Oz”) created a songbook with pieces ranging from the bizarrely comic to the downright tragic. The cast can reach into both reservoirs. For example, Simmons’ rendition of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” (a Groucho Marx stand-by) is droll and goofy, while his “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)” is heartrending. Carson even gets his own moment to shine with the charming “This Time the Dream’s On Me.”

Anzevino’s staging occasionally comes off as having actors move just to have actors move, and “Over the Rainbow,” which receives a mention on the poster, could have received a lot more attention. Fortunately, David Heimann’s choreography always infuses energy into the songs. I’m not usually a fan of musical revues. Most of the time, they seem to me like live compilation albums meant to score a few more dollars from deceased songwriters. But with Theo Ubique’s focus on intimacy and simply presenting songs the whole team obviously loves, they come up with a show that has a tangible effect on the audience. This Sweet and Hot is a living experience.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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