Fine singing lifts Chicago Folks Operetta’s enjoyable “Land of Smiles”

Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 2:13 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Chelsea Morris as Lisa and Geoffrey Agpalo as Sou-Chong in Chicago Folks Operetta’s production of “Land of Smiles.”

The Merry Widow may be Franz Lehár’s most beloved operetta but for many, it is Land of Smiles that ranks as the composer’s finest work. The late operetta (1929) is even more chock full of memorable melodies and culturally far ahead of its time, with a story of interracial romance that must have seemed scandalous in Vienna and Berlin considering the contemporary political climate.

Give credit to the enterprising Chicago Folks Operetta company for mounting a new production of Land of Smiles, the first performance of Lehár’s operetta in the Chicago area in over a quarter-century.

Revised from an unsuccessful earlier version, The Yellow Jacket (1922), Land of Smiles (Das Land des Lächelns) tells of Lisa, a wealthy Austrian count’s daughter who falls in love with the Chinese diplomat Prince Sou-Chong. When the prince returns to China, Lisa decides to go with him yet her presence creates problems between the two, as Lisa protests Sou-Chong’s ceremonial wedding of four brides. In the meantime the prince’s young sister Mi has fallen in love with Lisa’s Austrian admirer, Gustl.

After a bitter fight with the prince over his ancient customs, Sou-Chong has Lisa imprisoned when she refuses to obey him. Ultimately, he relents and releases her, but their relationship is irreparably damaged, and Lisa and Gustl return to Austria. Sou Chong comforts the sobbing Mi, telling her that even though they are both broken hearted they must hide their emotions behind a smile.

Chicago Folks Operetta was founded eight years ago by Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly, married singers who became captivated by the operetta genre while living in Germany.

With Light Opera Works now focused largely on Broadway musicals, Chicago Folks Operetta is the only Chicago-area company—and one of the few in the country—devoted exclusively to operetta. Kudos to Kelly and Frantzen for keeping the local flame alight for this important art form.

Chicago Folks Operetta doesn’t yet possess the resources to mount elaborate productions, and one had to make allowances for the lack of scenery and limited costuming at Saturday night’s performance at the intimate 773 Theatre on Belmont.

Still with some artful use of projections the company managed a more-than-respectable staging and did not stint on musical values, which are more important in this genre than scenic eye candy. With some superb singing from the two principals, and an excellent 20-piece orchestra, Chicago Folks Operetta’s Land of Smiles hit all the musical high points and touched the heart.

As Lisa, Chelsea Morris displayed a big gleaming soprano, throwing off top notes with impressive power and precision. If her acting was a bit by the numbers early on, she brought fire and impassioned conviction to her confrontation scene with the prince.

As the conflicted Sou-Chong, Geoffrey Agpalo was rather stiff dramatically—the Act 1 scene where Lisa and the prince declare their love proved more tepid than torrid Saturday night. Yet Agpalo has an attractive vibrant tenor and nailed all the big moments and high notes, including a clarion rendition of the show’s biggest hit, Dein ist mein ganzes Herz (here, All of my Heart is Yours), which became the signature of the show’s original star, Richard Tauber. (Frantzen and Hersh Glagov provided the user-friendly English translation.)

Christine Bunuan was charming as Mi, Sou-Chong’s westernized sister, and affecting in her emotional distress in the final scene. As Gustl, Zachary Elmassian brought a solid baritone and worthy acting. As the secondary couple, the pairing of the two actors also provided a humorous visual with the very tall baritone towering over the tiny Bunuan in their duet. Kevin Grubb was an effective if decidedly occidental villain as the prince’s uncle Chang, and the dozen hard-working chorus members managed their various roles gracefully and energetically.

Director Elizabeth Margolius moved the principals on and off stage capably, utilizing all four sides of the black-box theater, and bringing the requisite heartache to the final scene.

Less successful were the stylized movements and hand gestures of the chorus and supers. And Margolius really should rethink having three masked men with sticks aggressively controlling Sou-Chong’s movements during his first-act aria (Always Keep Smiling), a shtick repeated later during Mi’s charming Here Within the Women’s Quarters. We get that it symbolically reflects how the Chinese characters are tightly bound by ancient customs, but the violent movements and jarring visual only served to distract and upstage Agpalo’s lovely rendition of one of Lehár’s best tunes.

Conductor Kim Diehnelt led the 20-piece orchestra alertly, drawing polished, lively and idiomatic playing of Lehár’s lush melodies, while bringing out the piquant scoring and pentatonic elements of the Chinese scenes.

With the lack of a pit, the orchestra was stationed on a raised platform to the left of the stage, occasionally burying some of the dialogue in boisterous moments. Likewise at full volume, voices were sometimes overwhelming in the tight quarters.

Still, one rarely gets the chance to hear operetta in this intimate a venue, and the up-close and personal element of the engaging performance made up for the fitful sonic claustrophobia.

Chicago Folks Operetta’s production of Franz Lehár’s Land of Smiles runs through July 14 at Stage 773 Theatre, 1225 W. Belmont.

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