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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
June 2004

Opera and operetta are the late Spring thing here in the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Opera completed their 2003-2004 season with a rather mediocre revision of Mozart’s masterpiece, The Magic Flute. Imported, or “co-produced” with Dallas, who gave us a lovely Marriage of Figaro three years ago, director Michael Cavanagh, for some reason moves the opera from ancient Egypt to China. This provides Cavanagh with plenty of opportunity to use elements from the Chinese Opera in the staging, but it falls short, especially during the challenges of Act 2. Sarastro’s followers are now costumed as followers of the Dalai Lama although they still sing of worshipping the Egyptian gods.

The real trouble, however is that there’s really nothing compelling in this revision. While the Chinese elements work well at first, when Tamino and Pamina go through the trials, they merely walk across the rear of the stage as images flash against the backdrop. Where are the rattling fabrics which might have created an illusion that these two were facing some sort of peril? It lacked so much imagination, one immediately thinks about seeing the delightful Bergman film version instead.

And what of the singers? Daniel Montenegro and Karin Wolverton fared well as Tamino and Pamina, and Genevieve Christianson was a delightful Papagena. One grew tired of Andrew Wilkowske’s attempts at scene stealing as Papageno. The opera isn’t about him, but he tried to make it so. Matt Boehler’s Sarastro was in fine voice, and the Attendants to the Queen of the Night, Evelyn Pollock (who’s had an outstanding season with the Opera, beginning with Lucrezia Borgia), Anna Jablonski and Liora Grodnikaite fared rather well. The three choirboys (and girls) who play the spirits, are a charming addition to the ensemble.

Alas, Amanda Pabyan’s Queen of the Night fared less well. She doesn’t have the forceful coloratura required for this greatest of arias, so her performance seriously diminishes the character’s power. The sequence where the Queen is destroyed looks all too much like the Wicked Witch of the West’s death scene in The Wizard of Oz, lacking total imagination.

The Magic Flute is my favorite opera, so I was disappointed by the mess that Cavanagh has made of this.

Minnesota Opera, continuing its Bel Canto tradition offers us Madame Butterfly, Carmen, Maria Padilla and, for me the most exciting offering, Nixon in China during its 2004-2005 season.

The strains of Gilbert and Sullivan filled the Guthrie Theatre during May and June as they concluded their season with a smashing (and surprisingly original) production of The Pirates of Penzance. While this operetta is well into its second century of popularity, it’s safe to say that The Pirates of Penzance came into its own after the Public Theatre staged a Centennial production with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. It played on Broadway for two years and was later filmed.

To reiterate the plot for W.S. Gilbert’s nonsensical topsy-turvy is a waste of space, suffice it to say that everything works out in the end. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has written additional material to make this the Guthrie’s own. The added material, including interpolations to Major-General Stanley’s classic patter song, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” is most welcome.

Instead, let us relish the delight of every trick, director Joe Dowling has added, from the pirates dangling from the light poles, to the Pirate King’s slide down Aisle 18, to the entrance of Queen Victoria. Michael Yeargan’s set, from pirate ship to rocky shore and ancestral resting place included, fit brightly onto the Guthrie’s thrust stage.

And what of the performances? While Jan Neuberger’s Ruth and Dan Calloway’s Frederic seemed a little tired at the performance I saw, they were still quite good. It didn’t matter, because both Jennifer Baldwin Peden as Mabel and her sister, Christina Baldwin as Edith, each blessed with an amazing voice, led a marvelous group of sisters who were “climbing over rocky mountain,” while Baldwin Peden’s coloratura on Poor Wandering One was an outstanding moment. Brian Sutherland’s Pirate King led the men’s performances followed closely by Jim Lichtscheidt’s Police Sergeant. Richard Inglewski constantly resisted going over the top as the Major General. He didn’t have too, because he’s got one of the greatest roles ever written by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Barbara Bryne steals the finale in her “guest star” appearance as Queen Victoria, singing a revised tune nipped from Iolanthe.

The Pirates of Penzance was such a success that it had to be extended, and rightly so.

Next season, the Guthrie ends its tenure in the crumbling theatre on Vineland Place before its move to new digs on the waterfront. Among its offerings: Death of a Salesman, Pygmalion, Oedipus the King and finally, the lovely Bock and Harnick musical, She Loves Me.

With all this glorious music filling the air, one was excited to see North Star Opera’s ambitious rendition of The Chocolate Soldier, Oscar Strauss’ musical setting for George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. The show has everything going for it: a terrific, romantic script, an outstanding, melodic score, and, with the right scenery, costumes and staging, everything an operetta needs to be successful.

This production had the beautifully talented Norah Long as Nadina, the vocally satisfying performance of Peter Halverson as Lieutenant Bumerli, the title character, and some lovely moments delivered by members of the ensemble.

So where did North Star go wrong, and why was The Chocolate Soldier so lackluster? Clearly, the blame must be placed on the production’s director, the hopelessly inept Randy Winkler. To begin with, the blocking and movement were awful, lacking any sense of style or period. There was no sense of humor, because, once again, Winkler, who passes himself off as professional, hasn’t done his homework. He doesn’t seem to understand that underneath the lilting score is one of Shaw’s greatest comedies, complete with the social commentary for which Shaw was famous.

Furthermore, in interpreting Rudolf Bernaur and Leopold Jacobsen’s libretto, adapted by Philip Kraus and Gregory Opelka, we’re never clear about the relationships. For example, the program states that Mascha is Nadina’s cousin, but costumer Lynn Farmington has her in a maid’s uniform. Whose idea was Nadina’s second act wedding dress? She was costumed in something resembling a blue bed sheet, not in something befitting the daughter of the town’s wealthiest family.

As Bumerli, Halverson sings beautifully, if pompously, but why is it that men playing Shaw, think it must be played over the top? Halverson doesn’t differentiate between his singing performance and his acting, so instead of playing it realistically and for laughs, his Bumerli becomes a real jerk instead of the romantic lead. (I once walked out of a production of Candida, one of my favorite Shaw plays, because the Marchbanks overacted to the point of intolerance.)

Winkler didn’t look at his production from every angle, because James Seemann’s set features unstable pillars that created poor sight lines on both sides of the theatre. Winkler’s directed in this theatre before, and should know about such things. Furthermore, where was the Sitting Room set for Act 3? By returning the show to Nadina’s bedroom, The Chocolate Soldier was given an implausible ending. Furthermore, little housekeeping things, like the poorly made bed and a badly placed table in the Patio scene, keep Winkler’s production on an amateur level. A little more homework would have revealed further, a glitch in the libretto: Wotan is not a character in The Flying Dutchman, he’s a character in The Ring Cycle.

The program was nicely laid out, although apparently no one ever proofread it, and many members of the ensemble, both principals and ensemble, deserve their picture next to their bio.

The Chocolate Soldier had a lovely quintet in the second act, and the ensemble made the Act 2 Finale very lively, creating the finest moment in the production. David A. Anderson as Col. Popoff, was smart enough to create his own business and ignore the inept direction. Jeremy Cady had some lovely moments as Major Spiridoff, and Roy Kallemeyn made his small bits onstage truly delightful.

North Star Opera charged $35 for a production that was worse than a high school show. With such ticket prices, audiences deserve something better, but obviously, Randy Winkler is an overpaid amateur, and until they hire someone else, no matter how ambitious they are, their productions won’t get any better than this unappetizing Chocolate Soldier.

I bought the CD for Bed, Boys and Beyond, Alfredo Alverez and Jeff Dobbins’ gay revue at Footlight Records in Manhattan, while searching for the “World Premiere Recording” of Broadway’s most notorious flop from the 1960s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I found the CD rather charming and was pleased when it showed up on the bill for Gaydar Productions’ annual Gay Pride production. I thought, with titles like “Men Seeking Men,” “May I Hold Your Hand” and “Family Values,” that Bed, Boys and Beyond would be a pleasant collection of cabaret songs. What we get on the Loring Playhouse stage is quite a bit more.

The show opens with the five men in the ensemble on “TW Gay” Airlines, and Dana Munson is a flight attendant with plenty of attitude taking center stage as Doug Anderson, Jay Baumgartner, Jacob Mahoney and Tom Nechodomu represent aspects of the modern gay community. From here, we still have those terrific songs, but they’re coupled with an assortment of skits, many of them feebly adapted to life in Minneapolis.

For example, the setup in “Screenwriting for the Gay Millennium” is rather rude, as a “Professor” performed by Jay Baumgartner revises the holiday classic on a certain reindeer into an offensive, stereotypical mess re-titled Rudolph 2004. When Baumgartner’s character asks, “what am I to do help you become better writers?” it’s tough to be silent and not ask that he say this awful dialogue. Throughout most of the skits, it’s hard to believe that librettist Dobbins thought this stuff was funny.

An attempt to revise their delightful “Chelsea Man” for the Twin Cities and given something of a Queer Eye makeover doesn’t work, because the situation behind the lyrics don’t adapt.

This isn’t to say that the show is completely terrible. After an half hour, it gets better with Jacob Mahoney’s 4th grade schoolyard monologue and the “Men Seeking Men” number. “The Misfit’s Lament” number works because it’s a point where the cast plays together as an ensemble and the piano (which desperately needed to be muted) isn’t loud enough to drown out the lyrics. A sequence on the history of Stonewall, similar to a feature article in the most recent issue of Lavender, is lovingly performed, although a lot of it goes over the audience’s heads. It’s doubtful many of the younger people in the audience even know what the Anita Bryant situation was about.

As written, Bed, Boys and Beyond is entertaining, because it plays to lowest common denominator, but it would be so much better if it was more focused, with fewer awful jokes, and a more positive outlook. Instead of the same old stereotypical stuff we’ve heard and scene before, with sharper, more imaginative and positive scenes, stronger direction and an ensemble that plays together, rather than appearing to be playing in five different shows, not to mention using the right projection and spending a little more time on diction, this could be a better show than what’s currently onstage. Moving some of the better skits to earlier spots in the show and cutting or revising others would help too.

Bed, Boys and Beyond continues at the Loring Playhouse throughout June and July.

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