The Merry Widder

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater
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Premiering in the first decade of the 20th Century, Franz Lehar’s, The Merry Widow became an international success story that spawned multiple productions and revivals, enormous sheet music sales, numerous recordings, desserts, hats, and even ladies’ unmentionables. The score was plush and romantic -- the quintessence of European Operetta.

The Widow received the Hollywood treatment three times, beginning with a memorably fetishistic silent film directed by Erich von Stroheim. Lubitsch tackled the operetta with more success in the 30’s with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, while an early 50’s remake with Lana Turner was more notable for its costumes than its singing. And, while in America it is more likely to be seen in the season of an opera company, the show has seldom been absent from the boards in some corner of the globe.

Now the venerable lady has received the Pacific Opera Project (POP) treatment and has been re-born in Civil War Era California as The Merry Widder. POP’s Artistic Director, Josh Shaw has adapted the story and devised a new libretto and lyrics to capitalize on the change of time and place. It is certainly one of the few adaptations to move a property’s original timeframe back in time as opposed to updating it.

What is most surprising about the new book is how closely it adheres to the original plot. A rich and pretty widow, Hanna, is receiving a great deal of amorous attention from suitors interested in her money. In the original, this creates strife in a Ruritanian country seeking to keep the widow’s fortune local. Shaw’s libretto neatly ups the ante by bringing in railroad men, whose conquest of the widow might well destroy the livelihood of the local community. In both versions, an old flame is ordered to keep the widow from marrying the wrong man.

Comedy doesn’t always age gracefully, and comic scenes are usually the Achilles heel of operetta performances. Shaw sweeps the cobwebs away by creating comic scenes which are modern in flavor and often use the self-referential style which has become popular in musicals and animated television shows like Family Guy. The problem is that many of these bits start out funny but extend far beyond their comic potential. There is also a crudity about much of the humor which clashes with the romanticism of the score. But I must report that the laughter from the audience was healthy enough to indicate that I was in the minority in feeling this.

Bevin Hill is a vivacious and strongly sung Hanna, who earns her ovation for a beautifully musical “Vilja.” Her accent may tend to Elly May Clampett, but that fits with Shaw’s broad characterizations, and she never fails to command the stage. Her erstwhile lover, Danny Loewe (he’s Danilo in the original), is played with charm and swagger by Nicholas LaGesse.

The secondary couple, Valentine and Camille, played by Alba Cancel and Brandon Lloyd, respectively, are having an illicit flirtation as Valentine is married to the local mayor. The two are nicely paired vocally, with Lloyd’s bright tenor particularly shining in his romantic moments in the hayloft, while Cancel brings a touch of sexuality to their duets. E. Scott Levin’s Mayor Zeta commits completely to Shaw’s comic ideas, as does Glenn Fernandez in the role of Yan-Can-Sing, an historically appropriate Chinese servant who has no true counterpart in the original.

The cast is large and threatens to swamp the playing area at points when both principals and chorus are on. But Shaw, who also directs, makes sure that the plot is always comprehensible. Stephen Karr’s reduction of the score neatly manages to keep many of the colors from the original orchestration and he conducts the performance with flair.

Ebell Club of Highland Park    February 26 – March 12, 2016    www.pacificoperaproject.com