Remember Nelson Eddie and Jeanette MacDonald singing Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life, At Last I’ve Found You in their 1935 debut film, Naughty Marietta?
How about Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein?
Ah, I thought so.
Now Opera AACC proves that a dated classic can overcome parody. I didn’t expect to like this contrived operetta, the overblown fluff of my mother’s classical record collection. I was wrong. Superb casting, sumptuous costumes, stunning sets and whimsical dance can transcend even the flimsiest plot.
If you know the film version, forget it. There’s no ship in sight in Victor Herbert’s 1910 script.
Opera AACC adopts a romanticized version of 1780s’ New Orleans, a rough-and-tumble frontier colony of planters and slaves, privateers and ruling gentry, Creoles and quadroons. This is a place so desperate for a civilizing influence that the French king sends mail-order brides. So it’s an interesting place for a princess on the lam to find herself.
But plucky Marietta (CarrieAnne Winter) does just that with the help of our hero Captain Dick (Frederick Rey), a confirmed bachelor who looks like Davy Crockett and arranges for her to masquerade as the son of puppeteer Rodolfo (J. Austin Bitner).
Of course a princess in pants, especially one who minces around town warbling coloratura cadenzas, can’t hide her true identity. Soon Etienne Grandet (Dan Seabolt), the lieutenant governor’s dashing son and a villainous pirate, is hot in pursuit. This despite the fact that he already owns the most beautiful quadroon in New Orleans, Adah (Nicole Swann Bowers).
For comic relief there is the obligatory fool, Simon O’Hara (Jarrod Lee), a pirate-in-training turned professional whipping boy to lieutenant governor (Matthew Henry Frieswyk). He alternately pursues and is pursed by the lovely old maid Lizette (Catrin Rowenna Davies). When he cuts loose, his acting and singing are all the more impressive for his earlier staged ineptness.
CarrieAnne Winter has a shimmering sound that complements Rey’s bouyant tenor. They shine brightest in the spectacular quartet with Seabolt and Bowers, Live for Today, while Lee and Davies’ duet If I Were Anybody Else But Me is their highlight. For poetic beauty of scene, sentiment and motion, though, Seabolt’s You Marry a Marionette, accompanied by a Pagliacci puppet ballet, is the show’s loveliest image.
Also noteworthy are the trio of flower girls, Tamara A. Tucker, Julie Hiscox and Megan Ihnen, and the comic Jerry Vess as Florenze, secretary and toady to the lieutenant governor. The cast includes paid professionals in lead roles, faculty, students and community singers. The 25-voice ensemble is clear, strong and succinct. They and the orchestra sounded the best I have ever heard them.
Some sound issues muddied the waters, though. Francophones will find accents atrocious. Act I features a squeaky prop that intrudes on dialogue, and Winter’s diction is often unclear in song. But if you imagine the words, I love Dick but I’m fickle, it generally works.
For a musical in Mother Goose attire, this story is surprisingly progressive. Herbert, a noted free thinker, tackles human rights in a time of sexual and racial chauvinism by painting Marietta as an independent woman and by flouting the convention of slavery when Etienne auctions off Adah to the highest bidder, only to have Dick buy her freedom.
This is a beautiful show, well executed, which I recommend for all ages.
Stage director: Jay D. Brock. Musical director: Anna Binneweg. Choreographer: Megan Morse Jans. Costumer by A.T. Jones & Sons. Light Designer: Michael Klima.
Playing FSa Feb. 3 and 4 at 8pm @ Opera AACC at the Kauffman Theater, Arnold Campus, AACC. $25 with discounts; rsvp: 410-777-2457; [email protected]