Light Opera Works’ “Student Prince” proves vocally strong yet dramatically uneven

Fri Aug 19, 2011 at 5:06 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Danielle M. Knox (Kathie) and William Bennett (Prince Karl Franz) in Light Opera Works’ “The Student Prince.” Photo: Rich Foreman

Light Opera Works opened its sole operetta of the season Thursday with a revival of Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, the once-popular 1924 romance, which ran longer than Show Boat on Broadway in the 1920s.

The Evanston company’s production proved strongest vocally at the opening matinee with a pair of fine singers in the leading roles. Yet the dated comedy felt decidedly creaky at times and the essential bittersweet nostalgia was largely missing in action.

The operetta tells the tale of the youthful title prince, Karl Franz of Karlsberg, who decamps to the rustic university city of Heidelberg with his tutor Doctor Engel for one year of carousing and revelry before his arranged marriage to Princess Margaret of Saxony. Unexpectedly he falls in love with Kathie, the young waitress at the local inn. Amid the drinking songs, partying and growing romance with Kathie, the prince is recalled to Karlsberg, when his father takes ill. Ultimately his father dies, Karl Franz ascends to the throne, and, in a touching final scene, realizes he must leave his true beloved Kathie to marry the Princess and take his place as king.

If parts of The Student Prince — particularly the hoary punchlines — feel rather corny today, Romberg’s score remains timeless, chockablock with hits that quickly became standards, including Golden Days, Serenade, Deep in My Heart Dear, and Drink, Drink, Drink. And while the scenario may be creaky, The Student Prince maintains a universality and surprising emotional impact in its touching nostalgic ache for one’s salad days and the lost romances of youth.

Rudy Hogenmiller directed with his usual skill, but overall this production suffers from that hyper, overcaffeinated quality that often afflicts operetta stagings–feeling like a bit too much of a hard sell that doesn’t allow the emotional peaks of the work to register. So too, the cast is vocally sound if not quite seasoned enough to encompass the operetta’s dramatic moments as well as they do the romance.

William Bennett is certainly credible as the youthful prince, the young singer looking like he’s barely out of his teens. Bennett possesses a vibrant and impressive tenor voice, able to throw off clarion high notes and handle the daunting demands of the Serenade with ease. Dramatically his Karl Franz was a bit one-dimensional, more plausible as the callow young prince of Act 1 and lacking the gravitas and dramatic authority of the royal who must turn his back on his true love in the final scene.

Similarly, Danielle M. Knox was vocally superb as Kathie, her rich soprano soaring over the choruses and delivering the big vocal moments in winning style. But the soprano seemed much too worldly and sophisticated for the sweet innocent barmaid who falls for the handsome prince. Too much of her acting fell into the mechanical by-the numbers musical theater tempo and the final scene had little of the emotional impact that can be shattering when handled with dramatic sincerity. (And why in the world cut Kathie’s heart-breaking final line to the prince, “I’ll never forget you”?)

The rest of the large cast was rounded out with characterful supporting players. As Doctor Engel, Bill Stone was age-appropriate as the prince’s benevolent tutor, though decidedly rough and gravelly voiced in Golden Days. Dale Benson was fitfully amusing and often over the top in his mugging as Lutz, the prince’s scandalized valet. Jon Landvick was an aptly garrulous and mostly well sung Detlef, student leader of the Saxon Corp who sings the rousing Drink, Drink, Drink.

Jody Goldman was a regal Duchess, Stephanie Stockstill a bit too arch initially yet an eventually sympathetic Princess Margaret. As the prime minister, Count von Mark, Glenn Braun brought the right air of icy malevolence, mitigated by several flubbed lines. As Captain Tarnitz, the Princess’s unsuccessful suitor, Greg Zawada found the right tone of dramatic sincerity that the production could have used more of.

Tom Burch’s set and Jeff Hendry’s costumes set the right colorful atmosphere, with some artful lighting by Andrew Wheeler. Conductor Roger L. Bingaman led the two-dozen orchestra members with his usual vitality and panache and drew worthy playing, apart from some repeated bouts of wayward violin intonation.

Light Opera Works’ The Student Prince runs through August 28 at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston. lightoperaworks; 847-869-6300.

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