On Sunday afternoon, June 5th, we went to see the final production of this year’s Skylight season, Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.” This was as manic and active a production of the famous operetta as we have seen. All of the action was intensely choreographed, and, with the exception of the few slow numbers, the stage was a continuous whirl of color and action. The “silly” meter was cranked up to high, to the point that the production verged on self-parody at times, but it was all good fun, and we enjoyed it very much.

Benjamin Robinson was a handsome and stalwart Frederic, and Julie Tabash Kelsheimer an attractive and forceful Mabel. Both had gorgeous voices and lead an excellent cast. Drew Brhel as Major-General Stanley and Diane Lane as Ruth were splendid in their important comic roles, and sang well as well.
As mentioned, a lot of the scenes were almost continuous dance and action: the intense choreography by Ryan Cappleman, and the stage business as directed by Shawna Lucy, were continuous and seamlessly integrated.

The set, with its postcard backgrounds, worked well with the action, and incorporated its own set of jokes. The women’s shirtwaist outfits for the first act were more 1900 style than 1879, but they were attractive and pretty and that was sufficient.

The orchestra, under the direction of noted Gilbert and Sullivan director Robert Linder, performed with out noticeable flaw, and supported the singers at just the right level.

A very enjoyable afternoon at the opera, with just as much energy as we could stand.
On Sunday, December 6th, we went to the Broadway Theatre Center and saw a delightful production of Lerner and Loewe’s musical “My Fair Lady,” as presented by Skylight Music Theatre.

Natalie Ford as Eliza Doolittle was just excellent. Singing fine, dancing perfectly adequate to the rather simple choreography required of the character, but her real strength was in her acting. She is an eloquent physical actor, and her expressive face, combined with her vocal range, gave her Eliza a spirit and fire that I associate more with Judy Garland in her prime than with the frequently more subdued Audrey Hepburn.

Ms. Ford’s force wonderfully crashed against Norman Moses’ immovable object. As Henry Higgins, Moses’ default expression of a slight self-satisfied smile made the Professor an even greater monster of egotism than the classic Rex Harrison grouch version. That Moses’ Higgins seems to think he is above it all makes the disruptions Eliza causes in his comfortable life all the more effective.

Rick Richter as Colonel Pickering was all that the role required: upright, honest, kind, generous, and courteous. He cannot be faulted if he is not as charming as the late Wilfrid Hyde-White—no one could be.

Joel Kopishke had a lot of heavy lifting to do in the role of Alfred P. Doolittle, and handled the part of cheerful reprobate well. I disagree with whomever made the choice to give the character a thick beard, which I think hindered Mr. Kopishke’s ability to mug; Alfred P. Doolittle is a great mugging role, and we missed some of that behind the facial foliage.

The principals were very well supported by Carol Greif as Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, and David Flores as the “hairy hound from Budapest,” Zoltan Karpathy. Diane Lane as Mrs. Higgins was marvelously kind, calm, and gracious—in a word everything her son is not. (Which makes me wonder, not for the first time, how Henry grew up to be such a pill. It must have been due to his father’s influence--.)

This also had to be one of the hardest working ensembles in theatre. When we’ve seen London street people, Ascot spectators, Embassy ball attendees, and Higgins’ household staff, it’s rather shocking to see only nine people in addition to the others taking a curtain call.

Stage business, as managed by Director Dorothy Danner was lively and clever, supplemented by enjoyable dancing choreographed by Pam Kreiger. The orchestra, directed by Shari Rhoades, supported the singers well and had excellent tone.

Costume design by Chris March was a major area of interest, in particular the Ascot scene, for which Mr. March provided some amazing outfits, in particular the hats, which nevertheless did not overwhelm the action. That bit of fantasy aside, I was equally impressed by how well the everyday outfits of the street people and servants looked. The Embassy Ball sequence was costumed with grandeur and elegance that was period-appropriate and wisely did not attempt to match the Ascot scene for excess.

The reconfigurable set pieces, especially when decorated with Higgins’ fine furniture, looked very well, and again gave the actors all they needed.

This was my first experience seeing “My Fair Lady” live and I was very glad I went. It is truly one of the classics of musical theatre, and the Skylight did it justice.

Highly recommended. "My Fair Lady" runs through December 27th.
Saturday evening, October 3rd, we went to the Broadway Theatre Center to see and hear the Skylight's new production of Puccini's "Tosca." It was generally considered to be a challenge to "scale down" this popular opera to fit the Skylight's small hall, but this isn't necessarily the case. Puccini tends to write big music for small casts, and "Tosca" is an example, with three major roles in Tosca, Scarpia, and Cavaradossi, a handful of supporting roles, and only one chorus at the end of the first act.

From a scenic standpoint, almost any stage is big enough to portray Scarpia's office in act Two. The section of battlements in Act Three doesn't have to be huge, which leaves the cathedral in Act One. The Skylight deftly got around that one by keeping the chorus offstage for the processional, leaving the visual focus on Scarpia.

Act One was where I had the biggest disagreement with the set design. The large painting Cavaradossi is working on is traditionally a saint if not the Madonna. The one used here was a dancing figure and looked more like a poster for the Moulin Rouge than anything found in a cathedral. Also, the bottom three feet of the painted canvas trailed on the floor and were casually walked on by both Cavaradossi and the Sacristan! (By the time Scarpia got around to treading on it, it wasn't as shocking.) Some of the best scene effects were done with lighting (designer Jason Fassl) in the same act, as, while Scarpia sings, "Tosca, you make me turn away from God!" a subtle shift alerts us that the panels screening the artist's work space form a cross looming over him.

The principal singers were all excellent, with all reviewers admiring Cassandra Aaron Black, who sang Floria Tosca with great power and passion. Her stage presence reminded me of Joan Sutherland. Reviews were more mixed for Chaz'men Williams-Ali as Cavaradossi and David Kravitz as Scarpia. We did not think that Williams-Ali's voice was too "light"; he sang with fine strength and expression. Kravitz was a lean and hungry, though sometimes genial, Scarpia and sang the role very well.

Kravitz may have been somewhat handicapped by his costume, which was described elsewhere as looking like a "Star Wars" villain (I'd have guessed "Buck Rodgers" myself--.) However, by the time we saw Tosca come on for the third act, it was clear the costume designs by Kristy Leigh Hall were intended to be symbolic, since her "traveling" outfit is an impractical but highly dramatic red evening gown that looks like it had been dipped in blood.

Although this was the largest orchestra that could be crammed into the Skylight's pit, it was still far smaller than the usual full symphony used to support Puccini, and it was occasionally, though seldom, evident that they were working hard to make up weight, notably at the end of the first act, when the brasses got a bit sharp in the very demanding processional.

A controversial decision that we had no problem with was to have most of the opera sung in English, as the Skylight usually does, but leave the best known arias in Italian. I thought this worked well and I got more out of some scenes, such as Tosca's second act dialog with Scarpia, than I usually do with supertitles.

All in all, a fine production of which the Skylight can be justly proud.
On Sunday afternoon, June 7th, we went to see “The Skylight Ring,” billed as “Wagner’s Ring cycle in two hours.

While it’s possible to condense the story of “The Ring of the Nibelung” into as little as forty-five minutes, as done by the late Anna Russell, it’s essentially impossible to do it without humorous effect, and “The Skylight Ring” does definitely go for the laughs.

Wagner’s Ring over all takes up eighteen hours, is most often performed over the course of four separate evenings, and has a cast of thirty characters plus chorus, and a large orchestra. The Skylight Ring was performed by a cast of four playing two dozen characters, with one of the performers, Robert Frankenberry, also providing accompaniment on the piano. A great deal of the condensed action is delivered either as narration, also by Frankenberry, or by modernized dialog. Actually, this was our largest complaint with the performance: too much talking and not enough singing. Even if you accept the old saw that “Wagner has wonderful moments—and bad half hours—“ there’s more than enough great music in the Ring to fill a two hour “greatest hits” session. Excerpting may be a problem, as Wagner doesn’t often break his later operas down into arias, but it can be done.

Anyway, what we did get was entertaining, if pretty far from Wagner in a lot of ways—notably the ways in which The Lord of the Rings influenced this production—a “ring” of influence, if you will, since Tolkien borrowed the idea of the cursed ring that is desired by all who behold it from the Volsungasaga, the literary source of Wagner’s adaptation of the Nibelungenleid. In particular, the ring is referred to several times as having world-shattering power, an idea that comes from Tolkien, not the Icelandic poets. In addition, Alberich (Mr. Frankenberry), the dwarf who forswears love in order to seize the Rhine treasure, becomes a sort of “Gollum” figure, stalking the Ring through the generations of the Volsungs, disguised (in this version) as the villains Hunding, Mime, and Hagen. (Rather like those productions of “Tales of Hoffman” where the same bass-baritone sings all four villain roles--.)

The other singers each also took on a number of roles, with Tim Rebers pivotal part being Wotan, but covering everything from the Rhinemaiden Flosshilde to the raven Memory (Munin). Erin Sura had some of the longest singing bits as Brunnhilda, but also played Freia, Loge, The Norn, The Forest Bird, and Gutrune. Colleen Brooks, recently seen as Dora Marx in “The Snow Dragon,” played among others Fricka, Fasolt, and Erda, but had her largest role (and the most fun) playing the swaggering and shallow Siegfreid.

The simple set consisted of the stage floor done as the section of an enormous tree, referring to Yggdrasil, the world-tree, which was also represented as a kind of cartoon signpost pointing in all directions at one side of the stage. A large chest up center held props. Costumes were partial and representative (crowns, cloaks, eyepatch--), which resulted in some amusing and sometimes clever effects, as when, for Seigfried to disguise himself as Gunther, Ms. Brooks appropriates and dons the “nose glasses” Mr. Rebers had been wearing as the Gibichung.

The performance was not without musical high spots, notably Ms. Sura’s songs as Brunnhilde, and Mr. Rebers’ evocation of the ring of fire as Wotan. The piano score was well played by Mr. Frankenberry, but just does not succeed in doing justice to Wagner’s music. Wagner, of all opera composers, was perhaps the greatest master of the horns, and “The Ride of the Valkuries/Brunnhilda’s Battle Cry” without brass is, frankly, an egg without salt.

World premieres of new operas are fairly uncommon, although we’ve seen a few, such as Rio de Sangre at the Florentine Opera in 2010, and The Rivals at the Skylight in 2011, but it must be fairly rare for the average opera fan to be able to attend a premiere of an opera by a composer with which he is acquainted.

That was the singular experience we enjoyed on March 13th, as the Skylight Music Theatre opened The Snow Dragon, with music and libretto by Somtow Sucharitkul. During his career as a science fiction, fantasy, and horror author, Somtow had been author guest of honor at Milwaukee’s X-Con, and was remembered as an excellent guest, erudite, witty, and excellent company. Therefore, we had to attend. We got main floor seats as part of a block with “OperaCon” (of which more later) and had a very good time at this remarkable opera.

The opera is based upon a story by Somtow, called “The Fallen Country.” Inspired by the experiences of a friend, the story deals with violent child abuse and the generational cycle by which it is perpetuated. The story did not find a publisher for some years (It was vehemently, but ultimately fortuitously, rejected for inclusion in The Last Dangerous Visions--) until picked up for an anthology by Terri Windling.  Since then, the story has been recollected, and was also substantially reworked as a Young Adult novel for Bantam. However, the opera libretto is closer to the original story.

The opera opens with a magical overture, during which we see the protagonist, Billy Binder (Luke Brotherhood), a young boy, rescued from a high place by firemen. We learn that it is a church steeple, and a mystery as to how he got up there, as well as how he got frostbitten in the oppressive Florida heat.

Billy is referred to the school counselor, Dora Marx (Collen Brooks), who recognizes the signs of physical abuse in Billy. In order to get him to open up to her, she encourages him to tell her what she thinks is his escapist fantasy, of finding his way into the “Fallen Country,” a cold gray land where there is no pain because there is no feeling. The Fallen Country is home to the marvelous Snow Dragon (Cassandra Black), who befriends the boy, but also to the sinister Ringmaster, who rules the world with “his whip of burning cold.” Billy, who has not yet given up all feeling, finds that there he can channel his anger into power and perform feats like breaking shackles and freeing princesses. He longs to meet the Ringmaster, who is the alter-ego of his mother’s brutal lover, Stark (Dan Kempson) so that he can kill him, but his anger doesn’t sustain him in the Fallen Country long enough to reach the Ringmaster.  Dora thanks Billy for sharing his story, to which he replies, “It isn’t a story.”

In the second act, Billy is hospitalized by Stark’s brutality. Dora confronts Billy’s mother, Joan (Erica Schuller), who at first maintains that Billy had a bicycle accident. Then, she breaks down, saying that Stark isn’t a man, but “a force, a wind.”  Stark, alone with Billy, whispers threats to the boy, which tell us that he, too, is aware of the Fallen Country.

Dora decides she has to call the police to intervene. When she comes with them to Billy’s house, Stark is sleeping, but talks in his sleep, saying, “I never asked to be hated. I never asked for the cold to sink into my heart,” and other things that let Dora know that the Fallen Country is indeed real.  Stark becomes the Ringmaster, and opens the way to the Fallen County, dragging Joan with him, where she becomes the captive Princess. Billy pursues, but calls to Dora, telling her he needs her help and belief to reach and defeat the Ringmaster.

With Dora’s help, Billy gets to the Ringmaster’s tent lair, and the final conflict is initiated, with a twist due to the revelation of the Ringmaster’s dire secret.

Somtow’s libretto brings us the affecting story very effectively, and is totally integrated with the score. The music is both modern, and tuneful and sonorous, with just enough eerie effect for a magical plot without resembling a “Harry Potter” soundtrack in the least.  Somtow achieves that rare thing in modern music, harmony, especially with the second act trio for the three female voices.

Artistic Director Vishwa Subbaraman, who also conducts, assembled an extremely talented and skillful cast and crew. Luke Brotherhood as Billy has a long and challenging role for a child singer, and did superbly well in both vocal and physical acting the part of the abused but defiant boy.  Ms. Brooks was totally believable as the tired social worker who has seen too much, heard too much, and known too little success in her work. Strong and handsome, Mr. Kempson embodied the kind of attractive man that needy women are drawn to, only to discover his core of violence after it is too late.  Ms. Schuller, as Billy’s mother also did an excellent job in the role of the conflicted mother/princess figure.  The role of the Snow Dragon should be considered a plum role, and Cassandra Black inhabited it, sounding and looking magnificent in her glittering costume and spiky headdress. The orchestra presented Somtow’s score without noticeable flaw, and in excellent balance with the singers.

The setting, by William Boles, was largely symbolic, there being a small set of mundane rooms for Dora’s office and Billy’s house. The stark Fallen Country was represented by the bare concrete of the stage back wall, with bits that flew in and out, representing giant ice crystals, stars, and the circus ring emblematic of the entry to the Country. One puzzling bit was a number of pairs of white shoes dangling from ropes. (Even Somtow wasn’t sure what they were supposed to represent--).  However, the best piece was the great Dragon, which, in flight, was represented by a twenty-two foot long puppet, borne aloft by the choristers, fins gently waving as it ‘flew’ about the stage, softly glowing under ultraviolet light.  The elaborate lighting plot by David Gipson added greatly.

Costumes by Jason Orlenko were generally simple but effective.  The “real world” costumes were subtly suggestive: Billy’s torn t-shirt, the color of dried blood.  Stark’s sleeveless shirt, showing off his brawny, tattooed arms, emphasized his power and dangerousness.  Dora’s lightweight and pastel colored ensemble perfectly portrayed an office drudge who hasn’t quite yet given up all hope. She clutches her leather messenger bag—her “baggage”—to her as though it were a teddy bear. Joan’s outfit of tunic top, Capri leggings, and flat Mary Jane shoes made her look like the most childlike of all the cast. The effect in which she changed her bathrobe into the elaborate Princess’ gown was just nifty—there’s no other word for it. The Ringmaster’s uniform was wonderfully elaborate with its own dark beauty—many young boys would have, at least figuratively, killed for it--.

 The Snow Dragon captures and sets to music the problem of domestic violence against children, and plays it out as an Oedipal contest of wills, which, ultimately, can only come to an end when one party finds a strategy other than the obvious. It is quite powerful.

 The Skylight has partnered with local anti-abuse groups and resources, including arranging to have a child psychologist on hand during school showings, and listed contact information in their Audience Guide for the production.

 The Snow Dragon continues through March 29th.

On Sunday, September 21st, we went to the Skylight to see the season-opening production of “Fidelio” the sole opera of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The protagonist of the opera is Leonore (Cassandra Black), who is searching for her husband, Florestan (Chase Taylor), who has been “disappeared” after criticizing the local governor. Disguised as a youth, “Fidelio”, she has been searching the prisons for her husband. Her energy and competence have won her the confidence of the prison warden, Rocco (Chris Besch), as well as the interest of his daughter, Marzelline (Erica Schuller), and she is about to be permitted to work in the “secret cells,” where the political prisoners are held.

Rocco is in the process of arranging a marriage between his daughter and “Fidelio” when word comes that the prison will be inspected by the Justice Minister, Don Fernando (Dustin Hertzog), an honest man and friend of Florestan. This galvanizes the governor, Don Pizarro (Eric McKeever) who fears that his illegal imprisonment of Florestan will be discovered. He attempts to order Rocco to kill Florestan, but Rocco refuses. Don Pizarro then declares that he himself will do the murder, and directs Rocco to open an ancient cistern below the prison which will conceal Florestan's body.

Rocco takes Fidelio with him to open the cistern. Fidelio recognizes the wretched prisoner as her husband, and, when Don Pizarro comes to murder him, she comes between them and threatens Don Pizarro with the pickaxe she has been working with. She reveals herself as Leonore to everyone's amazement. Don Pizarro is thunderstruck long enough for the trumpets to announce Don Fernando's arrival, when he realizes all is lost.

Besides liking the music, we were attracted to this production by the promised "Bollywood" treatment to be given by the Skylight's new Artistic Director Viswa Subbaraman, who is of Indian extraction. In part, this refers to the practice, common in India's movie industry, of including musical numbers with song and dance, in almost any motion picture. In this case, the cast was costumed in a pre-British Raj fashion, and set against a background of painted plants and animals by artist Raghava KK that is reminiscent of illustrations from books of Hindu myth. Hair and beards were culturally appropriate. No attempt was made to imitate South Asian skin tones, the actors wearing their own complexions, which worked well. Dancers, choreographed by Deepa Devasena, a scholar and teacher of Indian dance, accompanied many of the musical numbers, which added nice vigor to arias such as Marzelline's aria in the first act, "If only I were already united with thee" ("O wär ich schon mit dir vereint), which otherwise is a lengthy stretch of the singer alone on stage. We didn't get the scene we had visualized, which was grateful prisoners gently dancing in the sun and air when allowed out for exercise, but dances added to other scenes, such as the triumphal chorus at the climax, without being distracting.

All of the singing was good and quite beautiful, with the regrettable exception of Florestan's second-act solos such as "God! What darkness here!" Mr. Taylor's singing sounded harsh, and with an excessively wide vibrato. I conjecture that he may have been trying a bit too hard to portray vocally Florestan's weakness and misery in those parts, since he blended well with the rest of the cast on the later ensemble pieces. The orchestra, directed by Mr. Subbaraman, did good justice to Beethoven's music. We thoroughly enjoyed this performance.

Although set in a past time even relative to Beethoven's day, this production reminded us that the story is timeless, and that, unfortunately, the the evils of secret prisons, political corruptions, and abuse of power are with us now as much as they ever were.
On Wednesday evening, November 23rd, we went to the Skylight to see their performance of Meredith Wilson's "The Music Man." This was the first time that either of us had ever seen this show live on stage (although of course we had seen the Robert Preston film version on TV--), and we were very pleased with it.

Skylight veteran Norman Moses has the role of "Professor Harold Hill." Moses sings, dances, and acts with the skill and verve we have come to expect, and also does an excellent job of getting accross that "we-are-all-in-on-the-joke" trickster vibe so essential to the part.

Niffer Clarke, as "Marian (the Librarian) Paroo" was a good match for Moses with her beautiful voice and elegant carriage. I've never heard Marian's songs such as "Good Night, My Someone," or "'Till There Was You," done better.

They are supported by an excellent cast, notably including charming children in the roles of Winthrop Paroo (Cole A. Winston) and Amaryllis (Keely Alona Savitt). There was a lot of very sharp dancing on the part of the young people in the cast on such numbers as "Marian the Librarian," and "Shipoopi".
The older folks provided a lot of well-drilled comic business that kept the action perking along.

The show was nicely costumed in the fanciful tradition of the musical's origin period, was provided with clever sets, and the necessarily small pit orchestra managed a big, sharp sound. I really couldn't name a flaw with this show. Great fun!
The Rivals is a new comic opera, words and music by Kirke Mechem, based on the play of the same title, by Ricard Brinsley Sheridan. It made its world premier in this run at the Skylight, opening their new season. We went to see it on Oct. 1, and were very pleased.

Not only is The Rivals a new opera, it is a new comic opera.  A new comic opera with tunes and melodies! A new comic opera with tunes and melodies AND an actual poetic libretto that rhymes!  Not that this last is something I would have requested or expected--Sheridan's play is not in verse--but it was a charming surprise, and, we thought, did a lot to enhance the period setting of the piece.

The action of the piece is moved from the spa town of Bath, in England, to the resort town of Newport, Rhode Island, in the early 1900's, which has a similar milieu of being both a playground for the well-do-do and a marriage mart.  Mrs. Malaprop (Diane Lane) is trying to find a husband for her niece, Lydia Larkspur (Alicia Berneche), and has her mind set on a titled suitor. Lydia, on the other hand is, enamored of "romance" and longs to find marital bliss starving in a garret with a talented but impoverished artist. To that end, she has become involved with "Waverly," a supposed opera composer. (There are a number of enjoyable jabs at the institution of opera in the witty libretto--.)  However. "Waverly" is in reality Captain Jack Absolute, naval attache, and heir to an earldom.  Complications ensue when Jack's father, Sir Anthony, enters into a marriage agreement for Jack and Lydia with Mrs. Malaprop, putting Jack into the decidedly uncomfortable position of not only being his own rival for Lydia's hand, but of having his imposture revealed untimely. 

Further adding to the fun are Matthew DiBattista as Jasper Vanderbilt, another unsuccessful suitor for Lydia's hand, and Zach Boirchevsky and Katherine M. Pracht as Nicholas Astor and Lydia's cousin Julia, whose love keeps coming off the rails due to Nicholas' low self image and conviction that everyone only likes him for his money.

Diane Lane gave us a handsome and vivacious Mrs. Malaprop, and carried off her fractured syntax, frenetic activity, and over-the-top gowns in fine style. Ms. Berneche starts off the show "languishing"--the character's name in Sheridan is "Lydia Languish,"--but shows some real fire when she learns how she has been manipulated. Christopher Burchett was very fine as the handsome Captain Jack, showing both an excellent voice and comic timing.  They were well supported by Borichevsky as the depressive Nicholas, Pracht as sensible Julia, Robert Orth as Sir Anthony Absolute, DiBattista as the hayseed Jasper, and Andrew Wilkowske as the conniving Baron von Hackenbock.  There was also an ensemble of servants, lead by Christine Robertson as Lucy, in a classic "clever servant" role.

The score was tuneful and pretty, easy to listen to, and borrowing period elements. We were pleased to hear actual duets, trios, and choruses, things we miss in other contemporary operas.

(It seems that modern atonal/a-tune-al music just doesn't lend itself to ensembles, which, upon reflection, seems to make sense. If you don't have melody, how can you have harmony? By contrast, consider Of Mice and Men, a 1970 work by Carlisle Floyd. It's pretty much all solo voices with occasional singers countering one another, and the "bunkhouse chorus", which is the only ensemble number in the piece. It's not bad, but, having heard it we are giving the Florentine's production of Floyd's Susannah this season a miss--.)

The production was handsomely costumed, and mounted on a cleverly used turntable set. The show was enlivened by the kind of clever stage business that has become a Skylight trademark, and the orchestra, under the direction of Richard Casey played well if a bit too loudly occasionally.

Mechem's treatment of The Rivals was thoroughly enjoyable, and we can hope it will find a place in the light opera repertory.

One would not necessarily have expected that the most controversial performance we would see this season would be one of Mozart's light comedy, Cosi Fan Tutte. In this case, the Skylight's decision to set the opera in Chicago, 1959, was not so much the issue as was the updated libretto by Dimitri Toscas. This libretto, written in the English vernacular of the time, and also in the Playboy magazine infused milieu of the time, was vehemently hated by some critics, notably Rick Walters of the Shepherd Express, who decried the replacement of the "magical" Lorenzo Da Ponte libretto with Toscas' "tasteless" one. One supposes that the degree of magicalness of Da Ponte's writing may depend upon how well you understand Da Ponte's Italian. (I have my doubts about Walters' comprehension, since he describes the opera's title as an "untranslatable phrase," whereas "Thus Do They All", to my knowledge has been at least one received gloss on the idiom for decades--.)

Suffice to say, we did not agree with Mr. Walters. The plot, which involves two young men "testing" the fidelity of their lady loves at the prompting of a cynical older friend, has been at least somewhat controversial for its sexism for years, and setting it in an era where that sexism, although still entrenched, was beginning to come under fire, was a workable choice.   Although there was a bit of suggestive humor in some of the men's songs, we didn't consider it tasteless, and, although perhaps not sparkling, witty enough and funny. We thought that Mozart would have approved. Mr. Toscas was also the Stage Director, and showed signs of learning stage business management from Skylight Artistic Director Bill Thiesen, since the action was both lively and humorous, but not distracting from the singing.

The modular set worked cleverly, and costumes were period-appropriate (including "bullet" bras and crinoline petticoats for the women) and looked good.

We had decided that we were going to enjoy Mozart's music if nothing else, and we were very happy with that decision. The orchestra, under the direction of Pasquale Laurino gave a nice clear and pleasant performance, which supported the singers very well.  The singers were well worth listening to, notably Skylight veteran Kathy Pyeatt as "Flora" (Flordiligi) and Mark Womack as "Elmo" (Guglielmo), but Lindsey Falduto (Dora/Dorabella), Brandon Wood (Randall/Ferrando), and Peter Clark (Fonzarello/Don Alfonso) all sang and acted excellently as well. Danielle Hermon Wood, in the role of Despina (here, a secretarial pool manager) not only performed up to the standards of the rest of the cast, but appeared in disguise as a doctor, nightclub singer, and an Orthodox priest, which required some vigorous clowning.

All in all, we had a very enjoyable afternoon at the opera.
On Sunday the 5th, we went to the Broadway Theatre Center downtown for the Skylight’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” G&S operettas are part of the Skylight’s roots, and they did honor to their background with this production.

The curtain opened on a beautiful set depicting the midships main deck and quarterdeck of the “Pinafore”, which was rather fancifully designed, but worked very well for the production. The Pinafore sailors opened the show with “We Sail the Ocean Blue” in what turned out to be the show’s most ambitious dance number. The sailors accompanied themselves percussively with mop handles in a fashion informed by the STOMP phenomenon. Much of the rest of the choreography for the show isn’t so much dancing as moving/clowning to the music, but that’s appropriate for G&S and works well in this production. Gary Biggle as Sir Joseph Porter looked very well in the role and lead the clowning on such numbers as “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore” with such panache that one overlooked the utter silliness of introducing conga/Macarena moves to the general frivolity.

All of the performers sang well, especially Alicia Berneche as Josephine, Captain Corcoran’s daughter, who has a truly operatic voice. I also liked the fact that Robb Smith as Dick Deadeye sang out strongly and clearly, without attempting to affect any kind of Robert Newton/Long John Silver growl, as I have heard some performers do. Other performances I particularly enjoyed were John Muriello as Corcoran, and Rhonda Rae Busch as Hebe, the leader of Sir Joseph’s “sisters, cousins, and aunts.” There were some fun bits added, such as the raucous crow call that always greeted the pronunciation of the name “Dick Deadeye”, which I think may be a reference to the recent production of “Young Frankenstein” and the “Frau Blucher” gag; and the way in which Sir Joseph and Captain Corcoran dealt with the seemingly interminable encores to “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore,” a custom I personally find obnoxious.

There was not a lot of emotional depth to this production, the emphasis being on the light, fast and funny, but that was more than good enough. It was a very enjoyable afternoon of the old G&S.
On Wednesday night, December 17th, we enjoyed our "holiday" outing to the theatre by, perversely enough, taking in the Skylight Opera Company's production of Mel Brook's "The Producers" instead of something like "A Christmas Carol" or "The Nutcracker."

One has to give the Skylight kudos for programming this cynical, satirical, and anything-but seasonal piece counter to those two perennial big draws mounted by the Milwaukee Rep and the Milwaukee Ballet, respectively. Judging by the house, they were doing quite well, as they should be, given the strength of the show. Local critics have compared it favorably with the Broadway production, and, given certain necessary reductions in scale for the size of the house, I would have to agree.

It certainly is one of the most lavish productions I have seen the Skylight mount, with over 150 costumes, nearly as many wigs, and fifteen scene changes in the two acts, all of which are put to good use.

The cast is lead by Bill Theisen as Max Bialystock and Brian Vaughn as Leo Bloom. Both are very good, have excellent comic timing, sing well, and handle such dancing as they are given adequately. My only criticism would be that Vaughn's nasally neurotic voice occasionally defaults to a Midwestern open-ness--. (OK--, while Theisen and Vaughn are, in my mind, every bit as good as Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, it must be admitted that none of them have quite the edge of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, but then, who does? Probably one of the tragedies of musical theater would be that this version didn't come along while Mostel and Wilder were both still around and able to do it--.) Vaughn was particularly effective working gags with Bloom's blue blanket, and Thiesen earned his full night's pay with the one tour-de-force "Betrayed", in which he holds the stage alone and essentially recaps the entire show up to that point solo.

Of course, once the plot takes off, Bialystock and Bloom become relatively normal compared to the loons they work with in bringing "Springtime for Hitler" to the stage, and in this regard Thiesen and Vaughn had a stellar supporting cast. Molly Rhode, as Ulla (pronounced "OO-la") showed off marvelous comic timing, a great set of pipes (almost too loud for the house with amplification on "Along Came Bialy"), excellent physical acting chops, and never lost her juicy "Svedish" accent once.

The indefatigable Ray Jivoff, one of Milwaukee's hardest working actors, was gloriously shameless as taste-challenged director Roger De Bris, and Jonathan West was almost believable as the stage-struck SS veteran Franz Lebekind.

And speaking of hard work, one must mention the ensemble, fourteen actors who danced and sang their way through roles as theatregoers, policemen, judges and jurors, prisoners, the cast of "Springtime", and Bialystock's harem of moneyed old women (even the men!).

This was a great job by everyone concerned and thoroughly enjoyed. The cast received a standing ovation, heartily joined by, I was amused to note, the tall old man wearing the yarmulke, a few seats over from us--.
On June 2nd, we went to the Skylight Opera Theatre to see their production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience," the sixth of the famous pair's collaborations. The comic opera lampoons the "Aesthetic Movement," in particular the public foibles of such notable characters as Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne, and James McNeill Whistler. (Interestingly, at least some of the aesthetes seem to have had a sense of humor about it. When "Patience" was to be played in the United States, Gilbert and Sullivan actually hired Wilde to act as a sort of "advance man," giving lectures on the movement in cities where the opera was scheduled to open.) The protagonist, Bunthorne (Gary Briggle), a "fleshly poet", has won the devotion of all the well-bread ladies in his small town, who have all become fervent aesthetes and thrown over their former worldly suitors (members of the local Regiment). Bunthorne, however, prefers to pursue the milkmaid Patience (Niffer Clarke), who is not only obtuse to things aesthetic but also apparently impervious to "love" since she claims she does not know what it is. The aesthetic lades attempt to explain it to her with typically topsy-turvy effect when Archibald Grosvenor (Norman Moses) comes to town. Not only is Archibald a rival aesthete and poet to Bunthorne, he also turns out to be Patience's childhood companion, who loves her and whom she could love unreservedly. However, having been taught by the learned ladies that on must suffer for love, she determines that she can't love Archibald (although it is alright if he continues to love her--) and decides instead to accept Bunthorne.

Of course, things can't remain there, and work out in a typically comic fashion, although in a rather more low-keyed fashion than some, requiring no supernatural influences or deus ex machina pronouncements from the government.

In a lot of ways, "Patience" is one of the most grounded pf the G&S operas, and has a very "literary" script with much discussion of asthetic principles and the realities of fame and adulation. Bunthorne admits to the audience that he is a poseur and hates poetry, but can't live without the admiration of his fans--a pehnomenon still very current today.

As with most Gilbert and Sullivan scripts, there is some space for adding local references, and the production added very clever bits to the military men's patter song "A Heavy Dragoon," and the Bunthorne/Archibald duet "A Commonplace Young Man."

Clarke, Briggle, and Moses were very ably supported by the rest of the cast, who sang, danced, and mugged with the best of them. There was clever choreography, especially for the men, and the orchestra was in fine tune and did not overpower the voices. All in all, another very fine production by the Skylight.
My theatrical nostalgia trip continued when we went to see the Skylight’s production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” I played the part of Captain Brackett, the long-suffering island commander, long enough ago that I had to use makeup to appear “over fifty” with the West Allis Players. (One in a long series of non-singing roles in musical theatre— Jeff Douglas in “Brigadoon”, The Constable in “Fiddler on the Roof”, Herr Zeller in “Sound of Music,” Erronius in “Forum”--.) The Skylight’s production was excellent in many ways: fine dancing; excellent singing on the part of the male leads, operatic veteran Kurt Ollman as Emile De Becque and Mark Womack as Joe Cable; and an extravagantly raffish comic turn by Ray Jivoff as Luther Billis, and beautiful singing and expressive acting by Rita Thomas as “Bloody Mary”. The set was a tour de force, with a large turntable containing elliptical sections of platform that meshed with the stage’s entrances and exits in many combinations as it was rotated. There was also a fountain/shower with real water.

The show’s weak point, unfortunately, was Jennifer Swiderski in the pivotal role of Nellie Forbush, the “cockeyed optimist” nurse from Little Rock, AK. The Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel grader her performance as lacking spark: in the performance we saw, she was working hard and evidently giving her all, but the sparks just weren’t striking. She is a strong, energetic, and skillful dancer, no problems there. She has guts: in the staging of “Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” she actually got her hair wet under the practical shower and finished the scene that way. Her voice is good for musical theatre and fills the hall. However, her apparent concession to vocal characterization was to occasionally hit a word with an unattractive flat nasality that someone must have told her was “Midwestern.” Knowing some genuine Arkansans, their accent is nothing like that, and shame on the Skylight’s directors for letting that through. She also, as was famously complained of Katharine Hepburn in one role, “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” She gets across Nellie as cheerful and chipper just fine: however, shock and horror when confronted with De Becque’s native children only worked out as mild confusion; what should have been shared grief at the death of Joe Cable showed only as modest concern. Since these are two of the show’s most dramatic moments, the performance was robbed of much potential luster.

The supporting cast of sailors and nurses sang and danced well, and the Skylight orchestra was in good form. Another production plus was the montage of images from World War II in the Pacific theatre that were projected during the overture. A downcheck was the apparent lack of a Makeup supervisor. Not only was “Nellie” let on stage with a makeup that was noticeably pale for Wisconsin, let alone someone who has been on a South Pacific island for months, but there was no particular attempt to be uniform in the rest of the cast either, such that the one “Marine” who had a realistic sunburn stood out.

“South Pacific” is a classic of the American musical theatre and contains some of its most beautiful and rousing music. The Skylight’s production is well worth taking in, despite its flaws.
We figured that the day after the big party we wouldn't be good for anything except sitting and letting ourselves be entertained, so we had planned ahead by treating ourselves to tickets for the Skylight Opera's production of "The Abduction from the Seraglio," by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As with all Skylight shows, the piece was sung in English, and this production was further updated into the 1940's with a distinct "Casablanca" feel. Belmonte, son of a wealty westerner, has come seeking his fiance, Constanza, whose ship was captured by pirates, and she and her servants sold into slavery. In the Skylight version, Pasha Selim, into whose hands they have fallen, is a white slaver and master of a criminal empire. Selim has fallen in love with Constanza and seeks to woo her into returning his ardor rather than forcing her. We thought that the stark concrete-looking sets and moody lighting aided the adaptation and the whole worked quite well. The English translation of the libretto was not terribly witty, but the comedy of this lightest of Mozart's operas was carried well by the comic acting and expressive singing of Robert Swan as Osmin, the Pasha's chief henchman, and the servant couple, Kurt Alakulppi as Pedrillo and Donna Smith as Blonda. The passionate side was well supported by Kathy Pyeatt as Constanza, Robert Gagnon as Belmonte, and Michael DiPadova as Selim in a very effective although non-singing role.

All in all the singing was as good as any we have heard at the Skylight. Pyeatt has a full, gorgeous voice and definitely lead the cast as Constanza. All of the singers were excellent, and we were especially impressed with Donna Smith, whose Blonda delivers a drubbing disguised as a vigorous Swedish massage to the letcherous Osmin without wavering in tone, pitch, or volume.

Unlike some recent Skylight shows, the production had a very coherent feel, with lovely period costumes and props, complete to the antique cameras and voice recording instruments sported by the 'reporters' who are part of the chorus. Thanks to Director Jon Kretzu, costumes by Stacey Galloway, and set by Takeshi Kata. Conductor Pasquale Laurino lead the orchestra flawlessly.
Romeo and Juliet

On Sunday the 1st, we went to the matinee performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Skylight Opera in Milwaukee. The Skylight normally specializes in "light" opera, so seeing the grand opera by Charles Gounod (better known for his famous Faust) on the season schedule was somewhat of a surprise. This production was actually an experiment, with mixed results. Of necessity, the company heavily cut the five-act original down to two acts, each made up of several scenes. In order to preserve the story, dialog and scenes from the Shakespeare play were inserted, resulting in a hybrid production, which seemed more like a slightly abridged play with music rather than an opera with spoken dialog.

There were a number of things about the production that unfortunately jarred, among them costumes: Romeo, Benvolio, Mercutio, and other supporting cast members sport Ren Faire garb. Papas Montague and Capulet wear modern-seeming business suits under their fur-trimmed robes. Paris and other noblemen sport frock coats and riding boots. Tybalt looks like a gunfighter in his long black leather duster, and Juliet's wardrobe seems borrowed from a Jean Harlow picture. All in all the effect is as though the show had no costume budget and was dressed in whatever could be scrounged from storage. In the Capulet's ball scene, all the guests carry decorated quarterstaves, largely for no discernible function. I hoped to see some clever choreography with the sticks, but what little there was was clumsy and distracting. The absurdly long train of Juliet's pregnoir in the balcony scene was handled a bit better, though it was still a distraction. I kept expecting to see Romeo clamber up it like Rapunzel's hair.

The Journal-Sentinel reviewer was rather harsh on Matt Morgan as Romeo, alleging he had only two volumes, loud and louder. It did not seem so to us. His performance could have been a bit more nuanced, but was not at all bad. Vanessa Conlin enjoyed her first starring role as Juliet, and, in the first act, seemed to not be acting much, relying on her doll-like prettiness and undeniably beautiful voice to carry her through. However, she warmed up in the second act, which she opens with a bravura aria, and continued to be more engaging. Michael A. Mayes was good wild Mercutio, although in his duel scene, his Warner Brothers-inspired cries of "woo woo" and the big smooch he plants on Tybalt were further indications of the lack of a unified vision for this production. Robert M. Bolden was appropriately sinister as the vengeful Tybalt.

My final criticism was that the swordplay was clumsy and uninteresting. I expect we are somewhat spoiled by American Players Theatre, but I have come to expect one of two standards for stage fighting—it should either be fast and realistic, or flashy and balletic in the old theatrical style. This was neither.

All that said, we still had a good time and thought the experiment well worthwhile. The cast members sang well and generally acted adequately, making good use of the minimal set, and the orchestra handled Gounod's romantic score very nicely.



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