A Night At The Operetta: Hold The Syrup
Though its name clearly identifies the form's classical roots, operetta was tremendously popular on Broadway during the first few decades of the 20th Century. Composers like Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml frequently overshadowed the musical comedy efforts of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart with long-running productions such as Naughty Marietta, The Desert Song and Rose-Marie.
Unfortunately, for all but the enthusiast, operetta in this country has been generally forgotten or has been remembered as a syrupy cliché. But Scott Siegel and his talented cohorts were able to set the record straight at Town Hall with A Night At The Operetta, a wonderfully entertaining crash course in a vibrant aspect of Broadway's history.
As in his acclaimed Broadway By The Year series, Siegel provided humorous and informative narration so that each selection could be understood in its proper artistic and historical context. Though 19th century European operettas by Jacques Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan were certainly popular when they premiered on these shores, Siegel chose to concentrate on the decades when operetta firmly established itself as part of the Broadway landscape, beginning in 1905 when the biggest hit in town was Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow. As Siegel described, the popularity of the waltz as inspired from The Merry Widow was comparable to the popularity of the twist at the birth of rock and roll. Eventually the American taste for foreign imports was replaced by a preference for operettas written by homegrown talents, and in the 1930's Hollywood raided the best of them as source material for early musical movies.
With music director/arranger Fred Barton at piano, joined by three string players, the evening's singers were a mix of artists from the worlds of opera, musical theatre and cabaret, treating the audience to both traditional vocal interpretations and performances which, while remaining true to the music and lyrics, were decidedly more theatrical or nightclubbish in nature. Director Dan Foster staged the selections to suit each singer's style.
For example, Metropolitan Opera tenor John Easterlin stood perfectly still downstage center in a formal white dinner jacket for his perfectly rapturous rendering of The Student Prince's "Serenade." Later, his duet of "Deep In My Heart, Dear" with the more theatrical Christiane Noll was a study in contrast between the classical style and the less formal American variation. (Earlier in the evening Noll brought a splendid gaiety to Naughty Marietta's "Italian Street Song.") On the other hand, Douglas Ladnier's performances of "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" and "One Alone," in a deep, velvety baritone, had the intimate warmth of a cabaret performance.
A robust and comical "Maxim's" from The Merry Widow opened the show, courtesy of Mark Jacoby, who teamed up with Paul Schoeffler as a pair of cuckolded husbands toasting their mutual misery in the humorous "When You're Wearing The Ball And Chain." Schoeffler and Karen Murphy displayed a fine knack for light comedy in the charming "Talk About This, Talk About That," a song that Cole Porter might have retitled "Let's Not Talk About Love." Soon after, Murphy was a gem lending exaggerated trills and satirical elegance to "Art Is Calling Me" (a/k/a "I Want To Be A Prima Donna"), a Victor Herbert effort from The Enchantress where the composer began to break away from European traditions and Americanize the operetta.
"Indian Love Call" is perhaps most remembered as a punch line for overdone operetta parodies, but you wouldn't know that from the sublimely romantic and passionate performances of Rebecca Eichenberger and William Michals. As soloists, Eichenberger sounded just lovely in The Desert Song's girlish "Romance" and Michals rich baritone and commanding presence made for a powerhouse performance of Song Of Norway's "Strange Music."
Milla Ilieva gave delightful old world warmth to "Giannini Mia," a song she learned as a 5-year-old from an Anna Maria Alberghetti LP. The soaring tenor of Manu Narayan was exciting to hear in the call to arms "The Song Of The Vagabonds" and Marc Kudisch was wonderfully silly, singing "Donkey Serenade" to a toy donkey on a stick. Song and dance man Gavin Lee charmed with music hall panache with The Red Mill's "The Streets Of New York."
The standout performance in an outstanding company was provided by Sarah Jane McMahan, the soprano recently seen as Mabel in New York City Opera's The Pirates Of Penzance. With a career that has covered opera, operetta and musical comedy, McMahon combined a gorgeous vocal sophistication, a sparkling presence and an intelligent sense of lyric phrasing for a divine solo of "One Kiss," and the pairing of her and Jacoby for "Wanting You" set off beautiful romantic sparks.
A special treat was that nearly half the concert's selections were performed without microphones, including the tender full company finale of "Toyland" as led by Murphy.
Anything but old-fashioned, A Night At The Operetta was a truly electric evening proving the art form can excite a modern audience just as handily as it did a hundred years ago.
2nd: Sarah Jane McMahon
3rd: Manu Narayan
Bottom: John Easterlin and Christiane Noll