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: Theatre at the Center’s “The Christmas Schooner”

Chicago’s Christmas Play

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Theatre at The Center presents:

The Christmas Schooner

 

by John Reeger and Julie Shannon
Directed by Chuck Gessert
Music-directed by William A. Underwood
Thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

I now have a new favorite holiday show, and I hope it runs as a yearly tradition in the Chicagoland area. The Christmas Schooner ran for many years at the Bailiwick Theatre and this year is currently at Theatre at The Center (an Equity theatre in nearby Munster, IN.)

CHRISTMAS_SCHOONER_2 The Christmas Schooner is a based on a true local story and written by Chicago’s John Reeger (book) and Julie Shannon (music.) The story involves a German family living in Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan and working on the schooners that carry cargo to other ports along the lake. At home the Stossel family has a strong respect for the German traditions as well as generous hearts that feel compassion for those less fortunate. When a letter from Peter Stossel’s (Brandon Dahlquist) sister arrives, addressing her disappointment in not having a Tannebaum for Christmas and how many Germans in Chicago were left feeling homesick without their traditional Christmas symbol, Peter, the father and man of the family, feels a sense of duty to bring the people of Chicago Christmas trees.

Almost this entire story is told through the everlasting music. Shannon’s songs tell the whole story, including witty conversations between family members and acted as if reacting to real dialogue. It is a complex diverse score that moves with the changing tide in the play and allows the astonishing voices on stage to fill the house with the emotion of their characters.

The dialogue succeeds in bringing out the everyday humor in each situation, and Peter Kevoian plays it best as the Opa Gustav Stossel. Kevoian moved me in all direction, having me laughing throughout the play and crying at the end. Each performer created their own individual and, as a whole, the chemistry between each member of the family brings out the strongest sense of family spirit. The message of pride and sacrifice for others is brought out in action and the bonds of love and dependency in one another builds as they set out to please others less fortunate.

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As in all true stories, there are moments of disappointment and sadness, but the courage and strength of the Stossel family bring out the true meaning of Christmas. Their kindness reached people of all ethnic backgrounds and the joy they brought to others made their difficult journeys worth their sacrifice.

The Christmas Schooner is a timeless musical that should be seen by all those dwelling near the Great Lakes, and across the U.S. This is a truly American Christmas story of family relations, traditions and generosity in the melting pot of the Midwest.

Rating: ★★★★

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