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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 23, 2016

Charlotte Maltby and Sam Simahk
Photo by Shira Friedman Photography

Glorious European locales! Stuffy royalty, including a character actually called Grand Duchess! Mistaken identity! Political intrigue! Decades of suffering and the possibility of redemption! If you were under the impression that good, old-fashioned operetta was dead, let Sebastian Michael and Jonathan Kaldor set you straight. Their new piece at the (how appropriate) Duke on 42nd Street for the New York Musical Festival, Icon, is, in its plot and general presentation, such a tribute to that superannuated form that it's not that difficult to envision the likes of Franz Schubert, Sigmund Romberg, and Dorothy Donnelly coming back from the dead for a few minutes to just get a peek at it.

Okay, so maybe composer-lyricist Kaldor and librettist Michael haven't gone quite as far as reviving the musical aspects of operetta as they have the book, structure, and personality of it. Although chimes of lyric soprano occasionally ring out through the vocal arrangements (by Michael Haslam), the writers are more interested in applying the musical theatre standards idea of today onto their bewitching and bewildering tale, presumably to bring it down to Earth for audiences (and, sadly, a show business) that wouldn't openly accept the real deal today, even if (as here) it stars the redoubtable Tony Sheldon (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and glimmering Broadway stalwart Donna McKechnie (A Chorus Line).

That's part of the problem, really. When your plot is set in a place the program refers to as—seriously—"The Alpine Principality of Centolucci" and concerns a young man's 1969 inquest into the violent death of that realm's Princess Constance, a Grace Kelly-like American implant, some four decades earlier, some sense of scope and size is called for beyond what's in the design. (For the NYMF production, Kevan Loney's sprawling animated projections and Liene Dobraja's costumes do better than anyone had any right to hope.) And when the details further involve Constance inciting a class war between the crusty upper crust into which she's been thrust and the street folk to whom she feels more spiritual connection, and one of whom she falls in love with (a music teacher named Alvaro, only lush, sweeping compositions can explain and justify what's going on in a language that doesn't make the proceedings seem, well, silly.

Further exacerbating this disconnect is the matter that, for all its craziness, the story is hardly surprising; I predicted the "big twist," about 10 minutes into Act I, and it unfolded, with only minor variations, as anticipated. Nor is it especially well told: The action builds to a muted climax before intermission, leaving the second act to wander listlessly around the issues that were raised earlier, dampening your own journey of discovery. It plays as if Michael realized halfway through how ridiculous it all was, and then started nudging it down a different side street. If Michael and director Paul Stancato (who has done admirable work organizing all this) are adapt at flipping between the two time frames, they fall short of imparting an equal dramatic intensity to both. (I'm trying to avoid spoilers.)

Donna McKechnie with members of the cast
Photo by Shira Friedman Photography

At least the score, when it's good, is quite good—Kaldor balances surging optimism in romantic numbers with Les Misérables-styled fervor for the political stuff. They're at their best when they blend most completely in (unsurprisingly) the most intimate numbers for Constance and Alvaro, though the full-stage anthems do thrill and the evening's overall highlight is Alvaro's forceful socialist-artistic declaration "That's All I Know." (The almost total lack of strings in Igor Kogan and Athan Gousios's orchestrations does seem a critical miscalculation, though.) Rather less accomplished are the time-fillers, including an excruciating "welcome to Venezuela" number (don't ask), a class-mocking trifle called "Oh, What a Bore!", and, alas, the Grand Duchess's memory-infused "The Burning of the Flags"—she's barely a character, so her meditations on history can't have much impact.

Sam Simahk is excellent as Alvaro, firmly in touch with the blazing fires of his soul and imbuing him with a rich but not overstated sensuality. Beautifully playing a fish out of water, Charlotte Maltby adds spunk and grit to Princess Constance to install her at right angles to the aristocracy in which she clearly does not belong. The bulging eyes and puffed chest Leslie Becker employs in playing the Grand Duchess give her a towering stature that handsomely complements, but doesn't adds little of substance to, her underwritten role. In smaller parts, Chase Crandell (Marcello, who's working to unravel the mystery of Constance's death), Chloe Holgate (a bar singer), and Ben McHugh (the Crown Prince) suffice without exciting. And Sheldon is deliciously subversive in the functionary role of Constance's devoted, personal secretary.

That leaves McKechnie, who is, as always, a joy. The woman she plays, Miss Vine, is as sensitive as they come, and McKechnie presents her as forever conducting a war between the expected social niceties and the urgings of her more Everyman heart. But McKechnie also lets you see just how Vine is locked in and tormented by her own past; it's a simple, but lovely, portrayal that embodies all the ideas at play in the rest of the show, without the tiniest bit of guile. This is a woman, McKechnie tells us, who will always know everything she says is true—even if she knows better than to say everything she knows.

Who is Miss Vine? Good question, and one that's integral enough to Icon that it shouldn't be dwelled on. If you have even a modicum of familiarity with or interest in what's being paid tribute, however, you shouldn't need much help in figuring it out. Does that matter? Maybe, maybe not. Operetta thrived on this kind of thing, and, if it seems overblown today, the best examples of it still play because it's supported, and even elevated, by its plot, lyrics, and music. That's not usually the case here; whether Kaldor and Michael are aiming for time travel, resuscitation, or the kindling of a new form altogether, they haven't fully reached their goals. But their misfires are fascinating enough to warrant a continued exploration whether the ultimate destination is an adoring past or an as-yet-unseeable future.

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