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The Chocolate Soldier: Sweet Melodies from Broadway's Distant Past

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If there were no other reason to enjoy Musicals Tonight!'s staged reading of Oscar Straus' The Chocolate Soldier, the fact that the cast includes George S. Irving, one of musical theatre's great character men with a Tony Award and 31 Broadway shows to his credit, should be enough for any true lover of the genre. At 82 years of age, this original cast member of Oklahoma! doesn't stop working, and delivers a master class in musical theatre performance every time he steps on stage. Listen to his melodic tones as he delivers a gag line. Hear his still powerful singing voice support crisp diction and intelligent phrasing. Watch his physicality teeter on the border of animated and realistic.

But as Mr. Irving only appears in a supporting role, it's fortunate that there are other charms to be had.

Musicals Tonight! briefly takes a hiatus from its usual fare of lesser-known musicals from the likes of Kern, Porter and Rodgers & Hart to present this 1909 operetta which enjoyed a healthy 8-month run in its Broadway premiere. In the days before jazz and ragtime really caught on in Manhattan, a night at a musical often meant operetta.

As it was composed by a Straus, The Chocolate Soldier features many sprightly waltzes for theatre-goers to hum. The original German libretto by Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson (English translation by Stanislaus Stange) was based on George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, but just as Shaw's Pygmalion was romanticized and satirically softened when adapted into My Fair Lady, The Chocolate Soldier is more of a lively frolic than its source material.

Taking place in the home of Bulgarian military officer (Irving), an accidental Swiss mercenary from the opposing Serbian army (so much a pacifist that he carries chocolates instead of bullets) escapes capture by climbing through the bedroom window of the officer's pretty daughter. Sure, he's the enemy, but he's young, unarmed and kinda cute, so in true operetta style she starts falling in love with him, despite being engaged to a man she believes to be a great Bulgarian war hero.

I'm sure you've figured out the ending already, but this is the kind of merriment you attend for romantic melodies sung by lovely voices, not for the plot. And though you may find yourself trying to muffle a laugh when hearing lyrics like "Listen, they are fighting. / In this war I'm not delighting." and "Never, never, never / Cease to think that we are clever.", they're sung by a fine ensemble under the musical direction of James Stenborg. Morgan James and Paul Jason Green make an appealing pair of romantic leads and James Sasser is especially funny and rich-voiced as the braggart warrior.

Director/choreographer Thomas Mills stages the piece with more of a musical comedy sensibility and adds a couple of clever inside jokes you can only get away with in a staged reading.

The Chocolate Soldier may be nobody's idea of a master work, but its great to have readings of shows like these to give us a taste of what Broadway was like nearly 100 years ago.

 


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