Chicago Theatre Review
In English…the Language of Love
The Merry Widow – Light Opera Works
Franz Lehar’s delightful, somewhat melancholy confection hasn’t been seen at Light Opera Works since 2005, when Stacey Tappan, the talented leading lady and title character of the current production, also starred. This is the kind of production this company does an exceptionally well, particularly under this director’s skillful watch. Over the years, LOW has mounted its share of Merry Widows, and practice certainly seems to make perfect, at least in the case of its current offering.
Artistic Director and actor, Rudy Hogenmiller orchestrates this grand, stylish operetta to be so visually stunning that it elicits renewed applause with the rise of each curtain. Elegance is the essence of this story and Mr. Hogenmiller stages and choreographs his production with an abundance of it. There’s not a wasted sideways glance or flick of a fan that doesn’t bespeak luxury and polish. Jack Helbig and Gregg Opelka’s contemporary-sounding English translation, featuring the hilariously oft repeated, “It’s in English! The language of love,” is faithful to the original German version while being easy to follow. Nyela Basney returns to the orchestra pit to conduct her talented 29-member ensemble of musicians, whose strings particularly stand out in this score.
The always impressive scenic designer Adam Veness has created three separate, eye-popping environments upon which Mr. Hogenmiller’s 30-member cast can cavort, sing and dance. Act I seems inspired by Cecil Beaton’s iconic and fashionable Ascot design for “My Fair Lady,” filled with an elegant black and white simplicity. A soaring staircase flanked by multiple playing levels and overlooked by three large windows provides a ballroom of substance and sophistication. Act II employs every color found in Mother Nature’s palette to create the Widow’s chichi garden, complete with a tiny summer house. Act III recreates the sumptuous decadence of Paris’ famous Maxim’s, draped in scarlet and accented with touches of black wood, polished brass and sparkling crystal. The talented team of Jesus Perez and Jane Debondt has complemented Mr. Veness‘ sets with their lush, high-class costumes that are both fashionable and artistic expressions of the characters they clothe. Together these three artists beautifully succeed in bringing the visual expression of Franz Lehar’s operetta to life.
In playing title character Hanna Glawari, Stacey Tappan is superb as the wealthy, merry Petrovian widow who’s being pursued by several overspending countrymen. Ms. Tappan’s winning smile is matched by her stunning vocals and classy, upscale demeanor that mask her jubilant country ways. The actress‘ light charm and proudly accomplished musicality easily makes her the star of this production. Not only is Ms. Tappan a marvelous, classically trained soprano but she proves to be a skilled actress, as well. She’s perfectly paired with Larry Adams as her former flame, Count Danilo. One of Chicago’s finest actors and most accomplished baritones, Mr. Adams brings his usual polish and power to the role of the aristocratic lady’s man who’s been requested by Baron Mirko Zeta (the Ambassador, excellently played and sung by Alex Honzen) to woo and wed the widow in order to keep her fortune from leaving their country. Both Ms. Tappan and Mr. Adams also prove graceful when gliding across the floor, whether dancing the famous “Merry Widow Waltz,” the lovely and poignant “Vilija” or the one of several folk dances, along with the spirited ensemble.
Sarah Wasserman, returns to Light Opera Works as Valencienne, the flirtatious wife of Baron Zeta, following her stunning portrayal of Josephine in their recent production of “HMS Pinafore.” She’s both a lovely singer and a skilled comic actress, while also surprising audiences with her choreographic skill in Act III, leading the can-can with “The Grisettes of Paris Greet You.” William Dwyer makes his welcome LOW debut as playboy and French Count Camille de Rosillon, the Baroness’ would-be suitor. His mastery of Lehar’s tricky score and copious amounts of spoken dialogue is nicely accomplished. And, a welcome addition to this company’s stable of comic musical character actors, Brian Rooney makes a very funny, memorable Njegus, the Embassy Secretary and Baron Zeta’s right-hand man.
In this joyful, lavish-sounding operetta, romance and rendezvous, trifles and trysts fly willy-nilly as the story of a flirtatious young widow and her true love agree to finally stop playing games with each other. Well-directed and choreographed by Rudy Hogenmiller, beautifully by a large cast and accompanied by an accomplished, full orchestra and staged with color, style and elegance, this production, presented in English (the language of love) will satisfy even the most discerning musical tastes.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 19-31 by Light Opera Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston, IL.
Tickets are available by visiting the LOW box office at 516 4th Street in Wilmette, by calling the box office at 847-920-5360 or by going to www.LightOperaWorks.com.
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