Talkin' Broadway Regional News & Reviews: Cleveland - "Ohio Light Opera" - 7/24/14
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CLEVELAND and beyond
Review by Ann Miner

A Summer in Ohio
Ohio Light Opera in Wooster


Alexa Devlin and Ted Christopher in
Call Me Madam

In the words of College of Wooster President Grant Cornwell, The Ohio Light Opera has pursued two goals: "providing both young and experienced musicians with an opportunity to perform together in a professional setting, and entertaining appreciative audiences with operettas and musicals that charmed the public of an earlier era." And that's a good description of what takes place each summer, as the OLO (the resident professional company of The College of Wooster) produces seven or eight productions in repertory within a two-month period. As of this year, they have produced more than 120 different works over 35 seasons, concentrating on operetta and classic musical theatre, mostly of the late 19th and 20th centuries, drawing from the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire as well as the Viennese, French, Hungarian, German, and American repertoire; they call this the genre of "lyric theatre." Some of the works are familiar and others are very rarely produced, so audiences have the opportunity to see favorites (like this season's My Fair Lady and Pirates of Penzance), rarely produced Golden Age, and earlier, musicals (Call Me Madam and Oh, Lady! Lady!!) and nearly forgotten shows by well known composers (Victor Herbert's Dream City and The Magic Knight.

The company draws up to 20,000 patrons each season, many arriving in tour groups, and others making day trips from Akron (35 miles), Cleveland (61 miles) and Columbus (97 miles). Wooster, the Wayne County seat, is a college town with a population under 30,000. It is in Ohio's "Amish Country" where quaint shops and charming B&Bs abound.

The OLO company is comprised of student and veteran regional opera and theatre performers, with many returning to Wooster summer after summer. From eight shows a week to the incredible schedule of ten shows a week in the final quarter of the season (matinee days feature two different selections), the core cast of each show stays the same, with some principal and featured roles double cast. Having seen the first four productions to open this season (My Fair Lady, The Pirates of Penzance, Call Me Madam and Die Fledermaus), I found the vocal talents to be consistently and impressively on a very high level.

Accompanying the singer-actors is a 32-member orchestra and a conducting staff of Lynn Thompson, Steven Byess and Jonathan Girard. The scores are performed beautifully and, occasionally, the orchestra is raised from the pit to play their overtures or entr'actes before returning below for the show.


Chelsea Friedlander and Andrew Maughan in
The Pirates of Penzance

The company's My Fair Lady is a straightforward presentation. Ted Christopher offers an appealing and appropriately consternated Henry Higgins. (A veteran of 16 seasons at OLO, Christopher's duties this year also include roles in Call Me Madam, The Pirates of Penzance and The Magic Knight and director duties for Die Fledermaus.) As Eliza, Natalie Ballenger (shares the role with Tanya Roberts) exhibits a very lovely singing voice.

Though we might catch the film version of Call Me Madam on TV, and several recordings exist, the opportunity to see a full production is a real treat. An iconic Ether Merman vehicle (never mind that Dinah Shore appears on the original cast album), Call Me Madam calls for a big, big voice—and Alexa Devlin (Olivia Maughan shares the role) delivers the decibels as Mrs. Sally Adams. Not a Merman-mimic, Devlin puts across the classic songs from this Irving Berlin score in her own stunning style, including "The Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball," "Can You Use Any Money Today?" and "The Best Thing For You" (a duet with her Cosmo Constantine, the aforementioned Ted Christopher). The charming "It's a Lovely Day, Today" is performed (and reprised nearly to death) cute-style by Stephen Faulk as Kenneth Gibson and the lovely Tara Sperry as Princess Maria. This comedy of international political manners includes a number of now obscure jokes, which dates it to some extent, but it's still a lot of fun and very nicely presented here.

The Gilbert & Sullivan selection for the season, the popular The Pirates of Penzance, is on rollicking and energetic display. Aidan Smerud is a standout as The Pirate King (he shares the role with Ted Christopher), and Andrew Maughan beautifully sings the role of Frederic, who must wait 63 years to come of age. Chelsea Friedlander is Mabel, and her voice is simply thrilling.


Tara Sperry and Stefan Gordon in
Die Fledermaus

The not too rare operetta Die Fledermaus features several mistaken identities, a love-sick tenor, a trouser role, and some of Johann Strauss Jr.'s most beloved music. And this is a grand, well paced, and sparkling production. Tara Sperry (shares with Tanya Roberts) returns as the beautiful Rosalinda, and she performs this role wonderfully. Daniel Neer (shares with Stefan Gordon) as the jail bird Eisenstein, Andrew Maughan (shares with Anthony Maida) as the ardent tenor Alfred, and Emily Nelson and the chambermaid/mistress Adele all contribute solid performances, particularly in the vocal department. Olivia Maughan (sharing with Gretchen Windt) as the host of the ball, Prince Orlofsky, shows a magnificent voice in the role.

With so many productions in a season, and the switching of sets daily, the scenic design for these productions is impressive. The sets are numerous and fairly elaborate, credit to designers Kim Powers, Murdock Lucas and Cassie King. The costumes are equally elaborate and detailed; Charlene Gross, Stefanie Genda and Adrienne Jones do fine work here. With so many shows and so many roles to fill from one corps of actors, the casting may occasionally be less than perfect (though not in regard to the singing, which is always terrific), and the choreography may be somewhat rudimentary and repetitious, but the overall achievements are to be applauded.

All seven shows are now in production (the four reviewed above plus Oh, Lady! Lady!!, Dream City/Magic Knight and The Little King) at the Freedlander Theatre on the campus of the College of Wooster, 329 E. University St., Wooster, Ohio 44691. The season ends on August 9, 2014. For performance information and tickets, call 330-263-2345 or visit www.ohiolightopera.org.

Note: July 29 - August 1, The Ohio Light Opera will also present "A Festival Symposium on the Music Theatre Tradition: Taking Light Opera Seriously." The symposium will feature sessions with Michael Berliner (Ayn Rand Institute), Kevin Clarke (author and Director of the Operetta Research Center Amsterdam), Stefan Frey (author and professor in Munich and Vienna), Kurt Ganzel (author Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre, Steven Ledbetter (scholar, writer, lecturer and conductor), Michael Miller (chair of the Ohio Light Opera Board of Directors and the president of Operetta Foundation), and Richard C. Norton (author of Chronology of American Musical Theatre). It will include roundtables and performances; topics include How Operetta Saved a Life , Horrible Prettiness: Cross-Dressing in French and Viennese Operettas, Going Global: Operetta as International Show Business and Lady Liza: Little - Known Information about My Fair Lady. Call 330-263-2345 for tickets and more information.


Photos courtesy of Ohio Light Opera

- Ann Miner



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