Fleming Masters The Art in Lyric Opera’s THE MERRY WIDOW

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Reviewed by: James Murray

Franz Lehar’s masterpiece, composed in 1905, swept the world with its intoxicating music and poignant love story about second chances. It is the first “musical” that ignited a mania for products from hats to hairstyles. Everyone knew, sang and danced the Merry Widow Waltz. The world was ripe for love and romance and what better setting to have the action play out than the Paris of 1905, the capitol of love.

At the opening night of the Lyric’s dazzling new production of The Merry Widow they began the evening by playing the Marseilles and everyone rose to their feet in a 2 minute ovation to show our support for the unspeakable and inhuman acts that took place in Paris on November 13, 2015. The General Director stated that the action of Merry Widow was set in Belle Époque Paris of a bygone era which made me realize that the world we know and loved is also of a bygone era. I was able to escape into this beautiful world of the piece created by Director Susan Stroman and Set Designer Julian Crouch.

The action involves the beautiful Hanna Glawari, the merry widow, and her late husband who has left her a very rich woman. In fact, she’s so rich that the economy of her homeland depends on her marrying a local — so the ambassador springs into action with the help of his wife (a former cancan girl) to find Hanna the right husband. But it’s a tricky affair because the wily widow already has someone in mind: Count Danilo, an old flame, who has no intention of giving up bachelorhood. He’s got a bevy of beauties delighted to keep him happy with no strings attached.  Rendezvous are rampant. Complications abound. Hanna ultimately gets her man and love wins.

I have seen many productions of this classic operetta; a few good, many bad. For what makes this story play is the result of chemistry in casting combined with light, beautiful voices (which the Lyric nails with the second however makes some missteps with the former); it is a lesson in chemistry. As the centerpiece of this production they have cast the incomparable Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson who possess that chemistry which pours over the footlights and washes the audience in its warmth. It is clear they adore one another in such a natural way that we get swept up in the story and genuinely care about them.

On her entrance Fleming was vocally too soft and, for the whole first act, it was difficult to hear her over the orchestra. I was not sure if she was pacing her voice in order to make it through the demanding score or not but it definitely marred one of the greatest entrances in operetta. That said she gained strength as the evening progressed (playing many of her songs far downstage which was wise). What the voice lacked in strength and volume it made up far by Fleming’s outstanding technique and sheer mastery of her art; Renee Fleming is one of the greatest sopranos of the modern operatic stage with a warmth, presence and acting ability that is rare. She plays Hannah Glawari in a completely natural style which one cannot help but fall in love with.

As Count Danillo, Thomas Hampson is made for this role with all of the panache and dashing presence demanded. He also brings an eccentricity to this well-known character (based on the actual Prince Danillo) and a strong acting ability which matches his legendary vocal prowess. You can tell he feels at ease with Fleming and they are two old friends having a sparring match and relishing every moment of it. The one disappointment I had was his entrance which, like Fleming’s appeared to be weak. He gets lost on the massive staircase (the set designer should have included large doors upstage center for the two stars to enter through).

As the secondary lovers Heidi Stober’s Valencienne is spot on however the same cannot be said of tenor Michael Spyre’s Camille de Rosillon who possesses a truly great voice but is simply miscast in a role that demands a handsome and dashing French lover; I never bought into their love story. They lacked the chemistry of Fleming and Hampson therefore muting the entire secondary plot line and creating embarrassing moments when Valencienne states that “You know I cannot resist you”.

The same can be said of Patrick Carfizzi who is a strong baritone with impeccable diction (a strong point for all of the main characters in the piece) however lacking the physical size demanded of this role (a big mistake the Lyric makes is sacrificing believability over voice). Also his second act costume dwarfed him even more. I never believe he was a Baron.

A couple of standouts in the cast are Genevieve Their’s Praskovia, Paul La Rosa’s Viscount Cascada (whose great looks and style have Camille de Rosillon written all over them) and Jeff Dumas’ Njegus (a role that is usually obnoxious and forced) played with a natural ease and charm.

Jeremy Sams English translation is one of the better I have heard and he gives it some very naughty lines such as when Njegus is peering through the keyhole of the summer house looking to see who is in there and tells Danillo “I can’t see her face” and he responds “Why, where is it?”. The translation of the song “Women” also possesses some of the funniest lyrics I have heard. There are some other songs which do not fare as well with the lyrics but overall this is a highly enjoyable translation and Sams has captured the spirit of decadent Belle Epoque Paris of 1905.

Susan Stroman’s choreography is top-notch and executed beautifully by the dancers and chorus. Chris Maravich’s lighting design is magical and brings Julian Crouch’s set to vibrant life and William Ivy Long’s Belle Epoque costumes are lush and exquisite (with the exception of Fleming’s unflattering gold gown in the second act and white one in the third which washes her out and blends with her fair complexion). I also would have liked to have seen Danillo in a blue military uniform instead of red).

My biggest criticism lies with the funeral tempos of Conductor Sir Andrew Davies (which is far too consistent with his conducting) dragging down the pace, making it even more difficult for the dancers and singers and dulling the inherent spark of the entire piece. This show has many numbers which should be galloping along instead of trotting.

However what makes this Merry Widow memorable will always be the remarkable chemistry of Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson who make us want to fall in love all over again.

The Merry Widow runs through December 3rd. Note: Renee Fleming will only be performing on specific dates. Visit the Lyric website’s Calendar of events here


Murderous Fun at The Bank of America Theatre – A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

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Reviewed by: James Murray/Highly Recommended

Related: Showbiz Chicago Interview: Kristen Beth Williams

Broadway in Chicago has kicked off its 2015-16 season with a winner; the long anticipated, multiple Tony-Award winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. The opening night of the show had an electricity of anticipation in the air and this show did not disappoint; in fact people were cheering long after the curtain call. With its overall stellar quality it actually felt like Broadway has come to Chicago with a flawless winner of a show. Read more

Light Opera Works Production of SOUTH PACIFIC Creates A Perfect Storm

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Highly Recommended

Reviewed by: James Murray

We all know that the weather in Chicago has been unpredictable, unseasonal and, at times, deadly. We have had storms that destroy. In Evanston at Cahn Auditorium the cast and crew of the current Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “South Pacific” they have created their own storm – and it is a perfect storm. Read more

Ordinary Days – An Extraordinary New Musical at Boho Theatre

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Highly Recommended  Theatre In Chicago Review Round up

Reviewed by: James Murray

Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days, now in an outstanding production at Boho Theatre in Rogers Park, is a refreshing look at love and the millennials in New York City, a place of broken dreams and transitory relationships. People meet, fall in love and fall apart in the course of 90 minutes in the highly intimate space of the Heartland Café. Gwon , one of the most exciting new composers to come along has the potential to take a place next to Sondheim if he continues to turn out music like he has in Ordinary Days. His music has the complexity of Sondheim and the clever lyrics of Cole Porter. Ordinary Days is more of a musical landscape presented in vignettes and songs with little spoken dialogue which provides a realism and draws us into a very believable world.

At heart, Ordinary Days tells the story of four ordinary people discovering that if you dig beneath the surface, you can find the extraordinary. When cynical Deb loses her most precious possession – the notes to her thesis-she unwittingly starts a chain of events that leads four New Yorkers discovering that their dreams, passions and struggles are anything but ordinary. Told though a series of intricately connected songs and vignettes, Ordinary Days is an original musical for anyone who’s ever struggled to find a meaningful connection in a city that seems overwhelming.

From the moment the show began time seemed to fly and it was over before I knew it (a really good sign).   Warren, a funny and dorky gay guy who is an artist trying to find his voice and audience (played by the extremely talented Nick Graffagna) has the opening number “One By One By One” which is reminiscent of Sondheim’s number from Company “Another Hundred People Just Got Off of The Train” sets the tone and introduces us to the four characters: Deb, a college student who loses the notes for her thesis, (a superb turn by Hannah Dawe), Clare , a brand new transplant to Manhattan (a poignant performance from Courtney Jones) and her new love Jason (the dynamic Demetrius Spidle). Claire and Jason have set up house and are finding that the initial attraction is slipping away and they may not really be suited to one another.

Boho, who has been trying to get the rights from Gwon to produce this play for four years, has, with the expertise of director Jason A. Fleece, assembled a talented group of artists who have created something magical in their tiny theatre space. The four actors are truly superb (and that is not a word I use much) and create an ensemble of characters that you deeply care about who make you laugh and cry; they are in command of the piece and their performances.

Fleece’s direction is seamless and, much like the description of the Monet painting referred to in the piece, comprised of a series of dots that blend together to form a masterpiece. And this is a masterpiece. As a director he possesses a simplicity and focus which brings the story to life and guides us as the audience, where he wants us to be.

I am always amazed at the scenic designs when I see a Boho production and Patrick Ham’s design for Ordinary Days is no exception. It is comprised of white doors of different kinds which act as a backdrop for the magnificent projection design by Anthony Churchill, who sets each location with static and video projections in a flawless manner (the several taxi rides are really great to experience). Cassy Schillo’s prop design is detailed and correct and Justin Castellano’s lighting design sets the right moods which are important for this kind of piece.

In the end it is the sum of the pieces that make up the whole which determines the success or failure of a work of art and Boho’s jewel Ordinary Days, is a success on all levels and one that you SHOULD NOT miss. I imagine that with only thirty-one seats this ticket will be in demand so book now if you hope to glimpse this special valentine from Boho.

Shattered Globe Presents Tennessee William’s Love Letter, THE ROSE TATTOO

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Reviewed by: James Murray

Highly Recommended: Theatre In Chicago Review Round Up

Tennessee William’s seldom done Rose Tattoo is getting a top-notch and rare revival by Shattered Globe Theatre in Chicago. Originally penned in 1950 as a vehicle for the tempestuous film star Anna Magnani it premiered in Chicago before going on to New York in 1951 with Maureen Stapleton as Serafina Della Rosa and Eli Wallach as Mangiacavallo, garnering William’s many deserved accolades, and then became a film in 1957 with Anna Magnani in the role created for her playing opposite Burt Lancaster. Most people only know this work through the film and have never seen it performed on stage. The reason that it is seldom performed is the role of Serafina Della Rosa is extremely difficult to cast because of the it was crafted around the qualities possessed only by Magnani. Read more

DeSelm & Nieves Bring Poignant Performances To Drury Lane’s Over-Amped WEST SIDE STORY

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Reviewed By: James Murray

Premiering in 1957 Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet still packs a whollop, especially in the hands of a masterful director like Rachel Rockwell. She has worked ardently for 8 months in assembling this cast of fine dancers (who have the skill and precision to tell a story through movement with the grace of seasoned ballet dancers), great actors and largely decent singers. What makes this West Side Story rather unique is a focus on the honesty of story-telling and having the courage to go where the story leads in a no-holds-barred style. This is not a sanitized or remotely safe production and it will touch you in a way that other Broadway revivals have not. Read more

A Gorgeous “Merry Widow” at Light Opera Works in Evanston

Light Opera Works 2014 at Cahn AuditoriumReviewed By: James Murray

Highly Recommended: Theatre In Chicago Review Round Up

Light Opera Works in Evanston, Chicago’s premiere musical theatre staging the operettas of bygone days, has a real Christmas treat: a gorgeously sung, designed and staged production of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow starring the magnificent Stacey Tappan and Chicago favorite Larry Adams, reprising their roles from the 2005 Light Opera Works production. Read more

Gorgeously Sung ANNA BOLENA at Lyric Opera

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Highly Recommended: Theatre In Chicago Review Round Up

Reviewed by: James Murray

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena originally premiered on December 26th, 1830 at La Scala in Italy with who is considered to be the first “acting” soprano Giuditta Pasta in the title role (he also created La sonnambula and Norma for her). Labelled one of the most formidable prima donna roles in Bel Canto the contralto who tackles this role sings almost continually for close to 3 hours and must have the acting chops as well as an extraordinary vocal ability. Read more

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