Ohio Light Opera 2018 Season, Some Additional Thoughts - New York City Article
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Light Opera of Ohio, 2018 Season
The College of Wooster
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Ohio Light Opera 2018 Season, Some Additional Thoughts
This was not only my first exposure to the Ohio Light Opera, but it also was my first experience of a Summer repertory season, of the kind that used to proliferate across the country, and, apparently still do, although always at least an airplane’s flight away from New York. With this sort of company, although few are ambitious enough to offer seven different fully-staged productions concurrently as OLO does, one immediately begins to notice how the different performers reappear in different roles: the leading lady in one show may be a mere chorus girl in another; the comedian in one production may be the heavy / bad guy / villain in another. Me being me, my eyes and ears were first drawn to the surfeit of attractive and immensely talented young sopranos in the company (particularly Sarah Best, Caitlin Ruddy, and Hannah Kurth) for obvious reasons; and then my attention was diverted to the well-seasoned, middle-aged baritones in comedy roles (particularly Ted Christopher and Daniel Seer), for the less obvious reason that they remind me, well, of me. (Yes, I have a harder time identifying with all those handsome 25-year-old leading men.)
The first show I was was Fifty Million Frenchmen, in which Sarah Best plays the central female role, “Looloo Carroll.” Sarah as “Looloo” is the show’s ostensible leading lady, but in this case, librettist Herbert Fields gave us a character who is absolutely essential to the plot - all the action revolves around her, but she doesn’t move the plot in any way, and is given relatively few songs and dances. There wasn’t much Ms. Best could do with this very passive ingenue role, who is exceptionally demure even by the standards of those pre-liberated times. Contrastingly, Hannah Kurth played the “cabaret artiste” named “May,” who is absolutely inessential to the plot - you could remove her from the action and no one would notice. Yet May has two of the best songs in the entire enterprise , “Find Me a Primitive Man” and “I’m Unlucky at Gambling,” and makes the most of them. Ms. Kurth has perhaps 12 minutes of stage time at most, yet she was the performer most on my mind as the curtain fell.
Then, that same night, Ms. Best played the title character in Iolanthe; except for a few jokes and plot points, this role requires her to sing almost continually, in some of the most breathtakingly beautiful music ever composed for the theater. Ms. Best’s classical singing voice is amazing, on a par with any that I’ve heard. “Iolanthe” is a fairy, and though I can’t claim to know what a fairy sounds like, I do feel like I’ve heard the voice of an angel.
I next encountered Ms. Best in Pajama Game. This is the only show in the OLO 2018 season that’s been revived on Broadway in recent memory and is likely to be revived again at some point. Comparing it to the Broadway production of 2006 underscores the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of summer stock, ensemble-repertory company approach. in the 2006 production, the entire focus was on Harry Connick, Jr., and Kelli O’Hara as “Sid” and “Babe”; they were the whole show, and all the other characters seemed to exist only to support them. In the OLO production, Sid and Babe were played by Nathan Brian and the spunky Alexa Devlin; yet good as they were, their story here seemed like merely one amongst several. Most of the time, my attention was drawn to the secondary couple, Daniel Neer and, by now, our old friend, Ms. Best, as “Hinesy” and “Gladys.” (That happens to me a lot; whenever I see Cabaret, I always find myself caring much more about “Fräulein Schneider” and “Herr Schultz” than I do about “Sally” and “Cliff.”)
But even in a supporting role, it was Ms. Best who carried the production, this time barely singing at all, but doing it all with comedy and dancing. At first this seemed like a waste of that seraphim-like voice, but she was able to carry it with her legs and her face. The part of “Gladys” was famous created for Carol Haney, a remarkable dancer and comedienne but, unlike Ms. Best, without much in the way of vocal chops. As, Gladys, Best was hysterically funny in every scene, and then left us all with our mouths agape with a 10-minute “dream ballet” (more like “Hinesy’s Nightmare Ballet” to the music of “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again”) not seen in either the 1957 film or the Harry Connick revival. Ms. Best pulled the whole thing off with just her dancing and body language (her leg-age, as it were) without so much as a song or a joke.
Ms. Best was also prominent in both Babes in Arms and Clo Clo. The first is a classic Rodgers & Hart show from 1937, but for me, harder to enjoy because nearly everything in it, including the basic plot and most of the songs, has been steadily recycled and re-recycled over the last 80 years, so much so that the entire work feels like it’s been strip-mined. Hollywood not only made it into a movie (the first of the four Mickey Rooney - Judy Garland spectacles) but they re-used the basic plot peg (kids putting on a show in the barn) over and over until the end of the movie musical. Nearly all the songs are ones you know, like “Where or When” and “The Lady is a Tramp,” and it must be admitted, it’s a novelty at least to hear the latter in a Broadway style-two beat, rather than a post-Sinatra 4/4.
But if there was one show that was worth the flight from New York to Ohio by itself, it was Franz Lehar’s Clo Clo from 1924, an Austrian operetta that fully indulged itself in faux-French sophistication. This is a full-on sex farce (or “sexy” farce, if you prefer) of the kind that wouldn’t be seen on Broadway until the 1960s, set to glorious, soaring music by one of the all-time kings of Viennese waltzes, ballads, love songs, and marches. The combination of eroticism, humor, and amazing music was rather overwhelming, as if Puccini had composed the soundtrack for a Betty Boop cartoon. Cast in the lead, the title character, was Caitlin Ruddy, the most Betty Boop-like soprano they could find, as a flapper who just couldn’t stop flapping. She who was appropriately perky and innocent with just the right amount of naughtiness. Yet once again, Sarah Best, in the comparatively minor role of a maid, stole nearly every scene she was in; not as a sexy maid, there was no-out-sexing Ms. Ruddy, but as a goofy, funny maid, who, for no discernible reason, moves sidewise. (Possibly from consuming too many crabs?)
The four “symposium” days of the annual festival are the most fun overall and jam-packed with music, with concerts and panels and presentations starting at 9:30 AM. (The evening shows usually end about 10:30PM, so that’s 13 hours of activity per day.) Before I came to Ohio Light Opera, I expected it to be rather like the Newport Jazz Festival, with a virtually uninterrupted flow of shows - kind of an all-you-can eat buffet. But now having attended it, the OLO Fest reminds me more of Netflix (would you believe, “NetTheater?”), a binge of live operetta and musical theater that continues for three or four days or a week or as long as you like. And, at the end of it, rather than being operetta’d out, as you might expect, instead you find yourself already looking forward to next year.
Pictured: “Gladys” (Sarah Best) “and men,” dancing the “Steam Heat” number in Pajama Game.
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, VANITY FAIR and PLAYBOY magazine and reviews current shows for THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)