From comic operas to opera comics? Stranger things have happened. At least wannabe yuksters Christopher Cain and Adelmo Guidarelli have got the right, legit-voiced stuff to sell their self-titled show, which is playing Tuesdays at the York Theatre at St. Peter's in December. If they didn't, this fitful blend of opera and comedy would have you yearning for the fabled fat lady before the two young men sang a single note. As it is, you won't want her to amble onstage until a bit later.
In fact, until the end of Act I of Chris & Adelmo: The Second Coming! (they briefly played the York a few months back), Cain and Guidarelli make surprisingly good on their stated goal to reclaim opera for the masses. In addition to boasting copious opera credits in their program bios, tenor Cain and baritone Guidarelli are sly, understated comedians with an equal commitment to comedy and music that recalls artists like Victor Borge and Anna Russell. They are aware "of the fact that everyone hates opera," and want to use that hatred (and their own talent) to demonstrate that we're already stuck with opera, and that's not such a bad thing.
Their devious opening duet, "Il gatto d'odore," seamlessly morphs from a serious Italian ode into the folk-satirical "Smelly Cat," which Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe Buffay warbled throughout the long-running TV sitcom Friends. An English translation of "The Barber of Seville" becomes so absurdist, it might be a Three Stooges routine. Next comes a fascinating examination of how opera has integrated itself into American culture, touching on everything from Bugs Bunny (Richard Wagner) to Broadway (Kismet and The Phantom of the Opera) and Louis Prima, that thanks to the men's witty, fraternal rapport never feels like the dry musical history lesson it otherwise might.
Yet they and director Mike Wills make a major miscalculation in the first-act finale they're never able to recover from: In trying to set the famous Abbott and Costello comedy routine "Who's on first?" to equally ubiquitous Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, they add far too much weight to works that only work when nimbly delivered. Without Gatling-gun timing, made next to impossible by the added heaviness of their voices and the sketch's glacial pacing, always-reliable jokes deflate right before your eyes.
Most of the second act is spent failing to regain their initial momentum. From Cain's labored divo-style fit about a stomped-upon solo number to a ballad about a legendary canned-meat product, a series of duets of increasingly good-natured competiveness, and a bizarrely lewd puppet show, what once seemed effortless attempts to confront the audience with an important but generally unfamiliar musical idiom becomes parasitically desperate. (A scantily clad showgirl, Amber L. Spradlin, even appears to land some fleshy spice to a drowning sing-along to William P. Mayhew's "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie.")
If Cain and Guidarelli would do well to engage an experienced writer to give real structure to this disjointedly vaudevillian evening, their onstage work is in no way lacking. Guidarelli is assigned the majority of the singing chores, and his precise, river-rumbling voice is a marvel. (The accompaniment he sometimes provides on ukulele, guitar, and kazoo is similarly adept; Bruce Stasyna and Cain alternate on the piano.) Cain is more reserved in the use of his Wagnerian instrument; he cultivates a boy-next-door persona more inherently approachable than Guidarelli's amped-up New York-Italian, but his vocals don't have the same impact. Yet the Alabama-born Cain speaks with such a pronounced Southern accent that to hear impeccably formed vowels escape his mouth when singing is amusingly startling.
More shocking, though, is that the show's finest moments not only aren't comic, they're also not operatic. When Cain, alone and at the piano, serenely sings "Que Sera Sera," you feel every bit of the unexpected joy - and occasional heartbreak - the song's lyrics convey; Cain becomes a ruminative father determined to pass along the simplest facts of life, and it's the show's warmest and surest transformation. The curtain-call spot is devoted to an original song by Wills and composer Peter Saxe called "A Christmas Toast," a quiet, thankful song about being in love during the holidays that Cain and Guidarelli deliver with arresting simplicity. It's so beautifully constructed that you can all but hear the snow fall outside while flames crackle away inside a nearby fireplace.
That these songs, and not the classical compositions the show intends to celebrate, most linger with you as you leave the theatre is not so much problematic as it is puzzling. That pop, even this attractive, hasn't been relegated to the back seat for a show like this one makes you wonder who, if anyone, is doing the driving.
Chris & Adelmo: The Second Coming