The current show is Naughty Marietta, a Victor Herbert epic set in New Orleans while it was under French rule. Their last two performances are this Saturday and Sunday, so book now if you want to see it. And you should, despite the drubbing I'm going to give it. Actors are the worst critics.
The show started a few minutes late, with the conductor getting up on stage and delivering an eloquent speech about how the theater's finances are so strained that if things continue on the current trend, they will have to shut down in February 2007. That's the end of next season. While I am a strong supporter of live theater, there is nothing which more thoroughly destroys the mood for me than someone begging from downstage center before the show even starts.
Naughty Marietta is very dear to my heart, because my mother used to sing tunes from it all the time, she was a huge fan of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, who starred in the movie way back in 1935. It found its way onto late night TV once in a while, and while I was treated to Mom's 78s of Eddy and MacDonald singing these wonderful tunes, I had never actually seen the movie enough to know what it was about. And I'd never seen it onstage.
I was prepared to be swept off my feet. Unfortunately, I wasn't.
For starters, blame the orchestra. They were way too loud. WAY too loud. And thereby hangs a tale:
When I went online for tickets, the form asked me for my seating preference. I wrote "Front and Center". The ticket master took me literally, and gave me seat A 105 - front row, dead center. I'm pretty sure the ticket master is the fellow who produced Pirates, because when I arrived at the theater he immediately sent me to the Will Call desk. How did he know?
Okay, so what does this mean for sound? Well, it means that I am closer to the stage than anyone in the audience, and if I can't hear the singing above the orchestra, nobody can. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.
This production features "super-titles", the lyrics to the songs are projected on a screen above the stage. I was so close to the stage that I could not see the actors and watch the titles at the same time. As a result I missed most of the words. Even to songs I already knew.
One strike against them.
The sets were a double disappointment. Designed by Ron Gasparinetti, the fellow I raved about for his sets at Dragon Productions recently, they were sadly mediocre. Very little money was spent. The script calls for a working fountain, but they never rigged it for water. And I think the base of the piece was borrowed from Stanford Savoyards - an octagon which I designed for The Yeomen of the Guard, which I directed at Stanford many moons ago. Charles Furnweger, who was technical director for Yeoman was crew chief for this show. Coincidence? Nah. The French Quarter exterior which starts the show was dull and lacked the famous wrought iron detail work. There are so many ways to replicate this for the stage, but they didn't.
Costumes were all over the place. I won't ding the costumer much because it's a huge cast - about 40 people - and most of them needed to be in period costume. It was just difficult to figure which period. On the other hand, I do think they did a good job of matching costume colors and styles for the women. Make-up was also excellent, kudos to Dave Kirby (aka d-kay, for those who remember ba.singles) and the cast.
A brief synopsis before getting personal. Marietta is a naughty Italian countessa who flees the convent her parents place her in, goes to France, and persuades a "caskette girl" to let her take her place on a ship headed for New Orleans. Caskette girls were sent by the King of France to the provinces to be wives to the settlers. What is not mentioned in the show is these girls were usually unattractive and poor, so the King outfitted them with a little cask of gold. BYO dowry. In this production, most of the caskette girls would not have needed any gold to find a husband. Quite the opposite. Meanwhile, back in NOLA, the King has commissioned a Kentucky mercenary named Captain Dick (feel free to snigger) to capture the notorious pirate Bras Pique. Eddy played the Captain in the movie version. Dick's rival is Etienne, the son of the foppish Lt. Governor, who is trying his best to avoid the duties of acting governor while the real governor is sailing away, and about to be captured by Bras Pique.
So, Marietta. She has to live up to Jeanette MacDonald, arguably the finest popular coloratura soprano of the 20th century. Pretty, too. Kristen Sharpley was no threat. She is attractive, but not enough for me to see two manly men fighting over her (this seems to be a recurring complaint lately in my reviews). Her voice? How to put it? More vibrato than tone. She did project above the orchestra, which is no mean feat, but I could not understand most of her words because the vibrato modulated them to a pulp. In fairness to her, she had a bad cold, and several cast members told me after the show it was amazing she was on stage at all.
Captain Dick (okay, he's really Richard Warrington, but calls himself Dick) is played by Nick Patton. Nick was one of the pirates in Pirates, has a lovely lyric tenor voice, and over the past 2+ years has taken on bigger and bigger roles. He too could be heard above the instruments, and he carried the part well. Warrington is a devout bachelor, and is in serious denial about having the hots for Marietta. There's a lot of clever banter and duets between them on this theme, and Nick show great comic timing.
Etienne is played by Taber Dullea. I imagine the script calls for a dashing military-looking man with a mean streak. Taber is shaped pretty much like me, and comes across as about as mean as Wilford Brumley. The part calls for a low baritone or a bass, and he just didn't quite have the lower range for his solo. Which brings me to a Good Thing about this show. Every supporting character has a solo. It's also a bad thing, because it makes the show too long. I counted 11 supporting characters.
Cut to the smaller roles. Talesha Bates plays Adah, Etienne's pet quadroon (look it up!) and soon to be jilted mistress. Her looks are to die for, she sings beautifully, her acting was above average and one wonders why she wasn't cast as Marietta. Mark Blattel as the Lt. Gov. does a fine job of being fat and lazy and in contention for the world record in procrastination. I gave Mark his first major role in Yeoman and he's been a mainstay at Lyric, among other venues, for a while now. Another Mark I have done many shows with stole the show with his Geppato immitation in his role as Rudolfo, the Italian organ grinder who also runs a puppet theater - with life-sized puppets. More on that later. Mr. Baushke's "He's a drive me crazy!" is spot on. Excellent character work, very different from any other role I've seen him do. Dan Galpin plays Simon O'Hara, Irish-American hillbilly who becomes the Lt. Gov's whipping boy. A huge role for what ought to be a side plot, another good job of staying in character, but I wasn't too impressed by the character. Blame it on the script. Marsha Sims as the voodoo queen was a total wash-out. She's supposed to be mysterious and fearsome, but it fell flat. Samantha Kambak as Lizette, who can't make her mind up which man she wants to marry (and no man seems interested) was cute, sang well, but didn't quite give me the Ado Annie the part called for. Close, though.
Two special notices are called for here, and I'm not sure who to credit. The Lt. Gov has a right-hand man, a fellow with gold rimmed glasses, impeccably dressed in court-like braided jacket, who keeps the official's calendar and such. Whoever played that role was superb. The other nod goes to the actress who played the life-sized female marionette, Pierette. She was given the incredibly difficult task of being parked in plain sight as a puppet "at rest" in the doorway-sized puppet stage, standing at an odd angle, the way a puppet might stand when the strings are set down. She held that position for about 10-15 minutes without moving. I'm always amazed at people who can do that. And she did the marionette dances perfectly (once miming being on strings, and once ballroom dancing with Marietta). Bravo and Brava to those two.
Directed by Michael Taylor also directed Pirates, but Marietta was not as well done. Too many bodies onstage at the same time. There were several scenes where the whole cast was onstage, which is never a good idea until the finale, IMHO. There was more dancing than any production I have ever seen, and while I applaud choreographer Gosia Hoot for the sheer magnitude of what she accomplished, and for some moments of brilliance and cleverness in many of the numbers, it was just too much. Again, too many bodies for that small stage.
A good evening of mindless entertainment, some classic operetta music, at a reasonable price. Don't let my critique keep you from going.