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Published: Saturday, 6/29/2002

Tripping the light opera fantastic

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

WOOSTER, Ohio - It is symbolic that the Wooster-based Ohio Light Opera opened its 24th season this month with Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon. Like the musical, which tells the story of a town holding on to its traditions by remaining untainted by the surrounding world, for nearly a quarter century OLO has celebrated, cherished, nurtured, and reinvigorated the repertoire of 19th and 20th century operetta and musical theater.

By all measures, OLO's has been a remarkable accomplishment. Not only does the company produce some of the country's finest theater, but it does so with a cast of boundlessly energetic young singers and instrumentalists.

OLO's season includes a revolving repertory of eight works through 68 performances and continues until Aug. 10. Wooster is located 130 miles southeast of Toledo.

Following a formula that in spirit governs the summer as a whole, the opening weekend featured three contrasting shows: Gilbert and Sullivan's ever-popular H.M.S. Pinafore, Victor Herbert's mostly forgotten Sweethearts, and Brigadoon.

Gilbert and Sullivan is the company's bread and butter. Few companies anywhere present this repertoire better.

Director Steven Daigle's energetic staging combines sight gags with intricate ensemble choreography. Pinafore is not just over the top, it is downright overboard.

Literally.

On three different occasions someone hurls herself or himself off the ship and into the sea. The first time, after overcoming the shock of seeing something so ludicrous, is hilarious. Thus primed, the next two occasions are funnier still.

Pinafore lovingly lampoons British notions of social privilege and class. Characters invariably have a two-dimensional aspect, but beneath the broad strokes is a subtle feel for the delicacy of the human condition.

The action centers around three sets of lovers. Each set contains an inappropriate match. The social-climbing Captain Corcoran denies his own attraction to the commoner Buttercup, while pitching his daughter Josephine for marriage with the hapless Sir Joseph Porter. Josephine's heart, however, beats only for the lowly but handsome sailor Ralph Rackstraw.

Tangles are sorted out with the revelation that captain and seaman were switched at birth. Accordingly, Corcoron is suddenly free to marry Buttercup and Rackstraw can marry Josephine, whose social demotion has dragged her below Sir Joseph's sphere.

Returning this season to sing the roles of Sir Joseph, Corcoran, and Rackstraw respectively are OLO's three leading men: Ted Christopher, Wade Woodward, and Brian Woods. The casting could hardly be better. The creamy-voiced Woods presents the essence of youthful innocence and yearning while Woodward renders a hale, if perennially confused, Corcoran.

Still, it is Christopher who nearly steals the show with his blustering and droll portrayal of Sir Joseph.

In many ways the opening weekend belonged to the multi-talented Christopher, who also gave pathos and depth to the non-singing role of alcoholic Jeff Douglas in Brigadoon.

The story tells of two New Yorkers - the dreamer Tommy Albright and the world-weary Jeff - who stumble onto the enchanted village of Brigadoon while hiking in Scotland. Under the spell of a “miracle” designed to keep the village forever pure, the town materializes but one day each century. On this day Tommy finds true love; Jeff finds only illusion.

Despite the lumbering morality, the show works on the strength of musical characterization. Songs - like “Come to Me, Bend to Me” (sung by the gentle Scottish husband-to-be Charlie Dalrymple), and “Almost Like Being in Love” (sung by Tommy) - are beautiful enough to create emotional highpoints.

Randall Umstead sang the role of Charlie with tender lyricism. David Wannen's elegant stage presence helped him overcome vocal shortcomings exacerbated by a tendency to grasp too strongly at every possible inflection.

Infusing the production with comic and physical exuberance was the full-voiced mezzo-soprano Lauren Pastorek in the role of the libidinous Meg Brockie. Julie Wright charmed as Tommy's quiet lover Fiona MacLaren.

Premiered in 1913, Victor Herbert's little-known Sweethearts shares with Pinafore a convoluted plot built on mistaken identities and calcified notions of social class. But here the humor is vaudevillian in character.

Indeed, watching the show one has archeological insights, as if the actors are digging into rich but long-forgotten veins of American popular humor. The gags, which are only loosely taped to the overall action, are remarkably fresh.

Jonathan Stinson as the shady diplomat Mikel Mikelovitz delivers a truckload of one-liners. The treasure-seeking trio of Percy Algernon Slingsby, Petrus van Tromp, and Aristide Caniche (played by Ben Smith, Derek Parks, and Patrick Howle) mug and romp their way through the show with unerring physical humor.

Cassidy King gave a sincere reading of Franz, the unassuming presumptive heir to the throne. The honey-voiced soprano Suzanne Woods was top-flight as the princess Sylvia.

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Additional current repertoire includes Suppe's `Boccaccio' as well as `Das Dreimaderlhaus,' an operetta based on the life and music of Franz Schubert.

Opening in July are Gilbert and Sullivan's `Ruddigore,' Kalman's `Autumn Maneuvers' and Kunneke's `The Cousin from Batavia.' Performances run Tuesday through Sunday until Aug. 10 at the Freedlander Theatre on the campus of the College of Wooster.

Tickets are $32 for adults, $16 for students 18 and under.

Information: 330-263-2345.



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