Review: THE DESERT SONG at Winter Opera

Winter Opera revives a Romberg favorite.

By: Mar. 07, 2023
Review: THE DESERT SONG at Winter Opera
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Sigmund Romberg's old favorite The Desert Song still showed many beauties in its revival at Winter Opera.

Operetta, as a genre, arose in the 1850's and swelled into a widely beloved form of entertainment. In America its chief luminaries were Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert, and Rudolf Friml. From the 1920's to the '40's the modern musical gradually drove operettas from the stage (except for the happily undying works of Gilbert & Sullivan). And I miss them! So I greatly approve of Winter Opera's offering us this old piece.

The Desert Song opened in 1926, riding a wave of Western fascination with all things Arabian. Just as the late Victorian arts had swooned over everything Japanese, so in the 1920's we idolized those romantic tribes of the desert. Beau Geste gave us a popular desert hero, Valentino became an icon as The Sheik, and of course there was the real-life Lawrence of Arabia.

This production of The Desert Song is set in Sharabat (originally Morocco) during an uprising by the native Riffian tribes against their colonial overlords, the "Marnish". In real history Morocco was a protectorate of Spain. When the Riffs rebelled in 1921 France joined forces with Spain to put down the rebels. Hence, in The Desert Song there are both French and Spanish touches.

In our story the Riffs are led by a mysterious hero, The Red Shadow--the wily nemesis of the Marnish forces-who is never seen without his red mask. This Red Shadow is one in a long line of heroes with hidden identities--the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Batman, Superman and others. (The Red Shadow is himself mocked in Doonesbury's "Red Rascal".)

The masterful Red Shadow is, in reality, Pierre, the seemingly inept son of General Birabeau. He is enamored of the lovely Margo Bonvalet. But Margot is engaged to Captain Fontaine and she barely takes notice of poor Pierre.

But when confronted with the Red Shadow Margot instantly falls for this dynamic hero. She has always wanted to "ride off on the back of a stallion with a slightly dangerous man". This dream is fulfilled at the end of Act 1 as the Shadow carries the swooning Margot off over the sands.

Among the many fine voices in this production Lauren Nash Silberstein, as Margot, shines brightest. Full of life, she emanates a natural charm and she sings with such lucidity that every syllable is clear. Dramatic baritone Colin Levin makes the Red Shadow bold and forceful. He deftly juggles the changes between the dauntless Shadow and the meek Pierre.

Taylor Comstock, as the Riff chieftain, Sid El Kar, has a strong clear tenor voice that stands out over a crowd of singing Riffs.

There is, of course, a secondary comic love interest. Benny Kidd, a feckless reporter alarmed at finding himself in the middle of this chaos, is played by Alexander Scheuerman. His is an utterly masterful comic gift and he excels at dance and physical comedy. He's matched by the delightful Holly Janz as Susan, Benny's Bronxy love-hungry secretary. (Adelaide in Guys and Dolls is almost a carbon copy of Susan-but with the sniffles.)

Jason Mallory makes a strapping, handsome Captain Paul Fontaine, who has promised to bring Margot the Red Shadow's head on his sword. Gary Moss is good at generals: he played that modern Major General in Winter Opera's Pirates of Penzance; now he returns to make a fine General Birabeau, Pierre's father.

Azuri, a native dancing girl, complicates the plot. She had a romance with Paul, and she would stop at nothing to prevent his marrying Margot. Kelsey Amanda brings a bitter conviction to this role.

Act 2 takes place in the desert palace of Ali Ben Ali, ruler of this region. Ali is powerfully played by bass Jacob Lassetter. His men have recently captured a troupe of Spanish dancing girls. Ali won't release the captives because, as he says, his men so enjoy the ladies' singing. Now in all those old novels, whenever Victorian maidens were abducted by infidel outlaws they always feared "a Fate Worse than Death". At last I realize what that fate was: nonconsensual singing. Cristina Bakhoum Sanchez gives a splendid performance as Clementina, a fiery and assertive Spanish dancer.

Sigmund Romberg gives us such a wealth of songs--in such variety. Some are sweepingly romantic, as in the title number where the Red Shadow sings "My desert is waiting. Dear, come there with me". They can be an irresistible call to battle as in "The Riff Song" with it's "drum, drum, drum of hoofbeats in the sand". The Riffs treat us to a couple of rollicking drinking songs. (They are Berbers, not Arabs, and they have their own distinctive version of Islam.)

There are some downright silly comic songs, like the one where Susan discovers she has "It". There's a lively Spanish number in which Clementina explains that the "dancing girls" are really "ladies of the brass key".

All of this is deftly managed by Stage Director Jon Truitt. Scenic Designer Scott Loebl very nicely reduces the number of sets required and gives us just the right North African style and palette. (No glorious cloudscape this time; just a clear, intensely blue desert sky.) Costumer Colleen Michelson rises to the challenge and gives us most attractive tri-color military uniforms, convincing tribal garb, and ladies' dresses in both 20's western and classic Spanish styles. Michael Sullivan brings his usual perfection to the lighting design.

Conductor Dario Salvi leads the orchestra in a flawless performance. (A much larger orchestra, though, would have helped us soar out of some [let's face it] really corny situations into the grand romance for which we yearn.)

The Desert Song's book has been tinkered with for two Broadway revivals. It's been tinkered with for five movies-both before and after the Hays Code. (Well, it was a little naughty.) A young Neil Simon had a hand in sanitizing it for a short TV version. The book for this production has been further sanitized by David Little. He attempts to expunge any hint of sexism, any oriental stereotypes. (Shall we try that with Shakespeare? Well, Bowdler did.) And I suppose the mysterious "Marnish" is an attempt to protect us from any Francophobia--even when the historic situation, the character names, and the uniforms are quite clearly French. And where the hell is Sharabat? Are we being delicate on some geo-political issue? Should we relocate Casa Blanca to Sharabat?

Have some respect for the authors and their place in history.

Even at its birth the book had its flaws. Yes, the hero gets the girl, but the struggle for Riff liberty is unresolved. There's just a gentlemen's agreement that the colonial powers will be nicer in their treatment of the Riffs.

Winter Opera produced Romberg's Student Prince five years ago, and showed it to be alive and kicking. Even with a stellar cast The Desert Song creaks a little. It lacks, I think, the sentimental integrity of The Student Prince.

It played at Winter Opera on March 3 and 5.

(Photo by Rebecca Haas)