Light Opera Works serves up a stylish and exuberant “Merry Widow”

Sat Dec 20, 2014 at 12:46 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Stacey Tappan and Larry Evans star in Lehar's "The Merry Widow" at Light Opera Works.
Stacey Tappan and Larry Evans star in Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” at Light Opera Works.

It’s probably safe to assume that not many Chicagoans are planning to jet over to Paris for some holiday festivities at Maxim’s.

But Light Opera Works is topping off its 2014 season with a tasty little sip of that legendary restaurant and night spot in its handsome production of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow that opened Friday night at Evanston’s Cahn Auditorium.

Lehar’s tuneful, zesty operetta about two strong-willed souls unwilling to admit that they’re crazy about each other, The Merry Widow is coming up on its 110th birthday and has moved firmly into the world’s grand opera houses. Lyric Opera presented it in 2009-10, and Renee Fleming stars in a Metropolitan Opera production opening on New Year’s Eve. Hearing it in Cahn’s relatively intimate confines, however, allowed us to savor every bubble of Lehar’s still-heady concoction of singing, dancing and amorous adventuring.

The production, designed by Adam Veness with costumes by Jesus Perez and Jane DeBondt, was a tastefully exuberant belle epoque fantasy. The ladies in sleek, black-and-white gowns and huge, extravagantly feathered, brimmed hats could have come straight from the Royal Enclosure at the Ascot races a la My Fair Lady. The final scene, in Maxim’s, plays out against a dusky backdrop of stylized Art Nouveau flowers.

The leading couple–Stacey Tappan as the beautiful young widow Hanna Glawari and Larry Adams as the worldly-wise bachelor Count Danilo—were a well-matched pair on opening night. Tappan’s soprano occasionally turned harsh on top notes, but her singing was otherwise full-bodied and flexible. In her sweeping ball gowns and elegantly bare shoulders, she was every inch the high-spirited, rich beauty.

Adams’ Count was eloquently shaded, tinged with the sorrow of a man who knows he is aging out of the carefree playboy role. In the high-spirited Girls, Girls, Girls production number Adams was light on his feet, his singing full of robust, virile energy. (This show is something of a reprise for Tappan, Adams and stage director Rudy Hogenmiller. They worked together on LOW’s 2005 Merry Widow, Hogenmiller’s first stage outing after becoming LOW’s artistic director.)

Alex Honzen was wonderful as the Baron Mirko Zeta, an ambassador worried that Hanna would marry a rich foreigner and take her millions out of their native Pontevedro’s otherwise-empty banks. His deep voice and mordant timing added a witty dash of bitters to the show.

Sarah Wasserman was an irrepressible Valencienne, the pretty little wife toying with a lover, but her silvery soprano sounded brittle at times. As her French suitor, tenor William Dwyer was boyishly ardent, but he strained for his high notes and the contrast between his French-accented dialogue and unabashedly American accent in his songs was distracting.

Among the strong supporting cast and chorus, Brian Rooney’s switch from the Baron’s timorous clerk to the razzle-dazzle MC at Maxim’s was memorable. Though the violins were sometimes shaky, LOW’s large orchestra sounded mostly vibrant under conductor Nyela Basney.

Two elements of the production were particularly remarkable. It isn’t easy to keep operetta, with its constant shift between singing and speech, buoyant and fast-paced. But Hogenmiller and his gifted cast never allowed the momentum to sag.And the English libretto by Jack Helbig and Gregg Opelka brimmed with sophisticated, conversational word play. The cast repaid the compliment with impeccable, unforced diction that allowed the romantic banter and jokes to blossom and sparkle

Next season Light Opera Works presents The Fantasticks, South Pacific and Guys and Dolls as well as a production titled “Hollywood’s Greatest Song Hits.” Happy New Year, LOW fans.

The Merry Widow runs through December 31.

Posted in Performances

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