‘Merry Widow’ delights under pressure

hotlineSometimes when disaster strikes, wonderful things result.

The story of Independent Opera Company‘s (IOC) opening of The Merry Widow on January 18 started about two hours before show time, when the producers learned that the singer playing one of the roles, Baron Zeta, would not be able to perform.  The big question:  as this was one of the few roles that had not been double-cast, could the show go on?

It certainly did.  With Scott Blois, the company’s stage director, reading the role with score in hand, the performance was a noted success, making the most of the considerable talents of the cast, and showing off the hard work they’ve been putting into this production for weeks.  Blois’ portrayal of the well-meaning but fundamentally clueless diplomat was lively and vivid, convincing enough that the binder he carried spawned only minimal distraction.  He’ll continue in the role through the rest of the run, and it’s a portrayal well worth catching.

The show was ruled, however, by soprano Natalie Mann, who sang and played the title character, Hanna Glawari, brilliantly.  From her glamorous first entrance, she wears the role elegantly and with distinctive style.  Mann’s voice and technique are superb top to bottom, and her acting smooth and unruffled, embodying the character right down to the aristocratic accent that was consistent in both sung and spoken lines.

Bass Jay Stephenson was a fitting counterpart as Hanna’s seemingly unwilling love interest, Count Danilovitsch, exhibiting strong comic timing, a delightfully layered characterization, and a big, rich voice.   His Danilo is plenty irresponsible, a touch smarmy, and scruffy around the edges, like a stylish reprobate.  But the facade conceals a heart smitten by his old flame and armed with the cleverness to win her back.  (Or is it the other way around?  Hmmm…)

Katherine LaPorta Jesensky and Andrew Bennett generated a little heat as Zeta’s wife, Valencienne, and the rakish Count de Rosillon (aka Camille), the Frenchman working diligently to lead the young baroness astray. Bennett gets better with every hearing, and Jesensky’s sparkling soprano was a highlight in an evening already full of good singing.

There are several smaller roles in this operetta, and the onstage rivalry between Joseph Buhler (Raoul de St. Brioche) and Steve Chavez (Vicomte Cascada), were particularly memorable for strong singing and jovial gamesmanship in their mutual quest for love (or at least an advantageous marriage).  Their markedly different portrayals were laugh-out-loud funny and stole the show several times, playing off each other beautifully.  Eugene Carbajal was an engaging Njegus, the baron’s right hand, and shone in his “Quite Parisian” solo.  Jessica Brusilow Rollins, as Olga, was a standout both for one solo line, sung with an adorable lilt, but for her charisma throughout — she is one of the stronger dancers in the chorus, and this small role shows she’s one to watch.

The men’s chorus was a little uneven musically, but their portrayals of various rakes and diplomats are hilarious and engaging.  Act two’s septet could almost be an anthem for the He-Man Woman Haters Club, and provides some of the best men’s ensemble singing in the show.  It was nicely put together, with all the energy of a rollicking bar song.

This beloved work by Franz Lehar is done often, and often done badly, as the “operetta” label is too frequently mistaken for license to hand the score to the inexperienced.  In truth, it’s not an easy show to pull off, with piles of dialogue, a potentially confusing plot, issues with translations, larger-than-life characters that are too often overplayed (even on the world’s best stages — check YouTube for numerous examples), and a score that pulls no punches.  But there are myriad reasons this gem has endured more than a century since its 1905 premiere, and IOC gave us many moments of the grand decadence the tale deserves.  Indeed, the famous Vilja was rousing and every bit as good as any I’ve heard.  Music director Galina Barskaya proves again that her skills at the keyboard are among the best in town, with spirited accompaniment throughout.   The action is fun and flirty, the memorable tunes delightful, and the work is a fascinating precursor to later American musical theater.  Whether you come for your heart or your head, it’s fun.

This production was pared down, to be sure, to fit the budget and the space at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in West LA.  The set is minimal, consisting of a couple of trees and a few pieces here and there.  Costumes were borrowed and gathered from various sources, and although more varied colors and better fit would have vastly improved the picture, we got the idea.  Choreography was ably provided by cast member Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez and included some very clever bits — especially the “Marsovian” dance created for Stephenson — but was clearly limited by the space and the skills of a few participants.  C’est la vie.  Any flaws didn’t detract terribly from a very enjoyable evening.

IOC’s production, if showing some room for improvement, also marks growth for the company as well as several of its younger performers.  The chorus was stronger vocally and better prepared than what we heard in Macbeth last June, and Blois’ stage direction is gaining confidence.  We look forward to a day when this plucky company can enjoy a real stage and stronger production values, to better show off what appears to considerable potential.  In the meantime, it’s a pleasure to watch the players and the company develop their strengths and improve with each outing, and we encourage readers to get in on the ground floor.

The production continues with two more performances this weekend —  Click here for details

This production is double-cast, so there are several featured performers who did not appear the night we attended.  Please see the company’s website  for a full cast list, and check out their Facebook page  for photos and more information.

Disclosure:  Natalie Mann and Coril Prochnow (the two Hannas in this production) are both members of the Lauri’s List Team.  Also, several of the cast and crew are “Listers”, i.e. they are or have been an active part of the List community.  Opinions here are genuinely expressed, but yes, we’re probably biased.  You’ll just have to see for yourself.

3 thoughts on “‘Merry Widow’ delights under pressure”

  1. I went with friends to see the Sunday performance, which was wonderful. We agreed with your critique, and although we didn’t see the same cast, Coril Prochnow, Brooke de Rosa and the whole cast were superb. I do hope you will review the other cast too.

    Your critique was excellent and very thorough, thank you so much for writing it. It is amazing what a small Opera Company can accomplish. Galina Barskaya was amazing, conducting and playing the piano all at the same time. BRAVO to all.

    • Thanks so much, Sonia — I’m glad it was helpful, and I’m so glad you weighed in on the other cast as well! Unfortunately, we won’t be able to review both. This is one of the downsides of double casting, for all its benefits. There’s rarely enough time to cover it all. Bravo to IOC, and the rest of you, please do let us know which group you saw and what you thought! (Keep it friendly…) LDG

  2. Natalie, your performance was beautifully done. If you don’t have an agent, please think about auditioning for the NFMC Young Artist Woman’s Voice Award. I am the Chairman and would love to have you audition. Go to http://www.nfmc-music.org to see if you are eligible. Hope you are! You probably don’t remember me but I remember you, as I was IFMC President before Donna Thiele. Your mother was Treasurer.

    Best of luck, Peg Bryan


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