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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Dinner at Eight
Minnesota Opera
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's review of Thurgood and Arty's reviews of Citizen: An American Lyric, Safe at Home and The Awakening

Craig Irvin and Susannah Biller
Photo by Cory Weaver
On October 22, 1932, Dinner at Eight opened at the Music Box Theater on Broadway. It was a sophisticated blend of comedy and soap opera, both poking fun at and drawing pathos from the plight of the well-heeled classes as the Great Depression lumbered into its third year. The play benefited from the gifts of its two co-authors: the sharp, satiric wit of George S. Kaufman and the emotional resonance of Edna Ferber. Dinner at Eight captured the moment, especially for those who could afford the price of a Broadway play, and played for six months, quite a healthy run in those days. The play became a successful 1933 movie with a starry cast: both John and Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, and Billie Burke.

Thanks to Minnesota Opera's New Work Initiative, Dinner at Eight is now an opera. It has a melodious score by venerable composer William Bolcom and a libretto by Mark Campbell that adheres closely to the original, following the intricate plotting, and maintaining the use of colloquial language from its era. It is a fairly intimate work, with very little in the way of choral performance, no singing ensemble, and no dance elements. Nine principal characters each have one or more arias, and there are several duets and group sections as well. Several performers in smaller roles (a butler, a maid, a secretary, a doctor's assistant, and a hotel bellhop) provide choral enhancement, but nothing approaching a true chorus. The format works well for what is basically a story about people who deceive one another and themselves, resulting in unfulfilled hopes and empty promises.

Each of the principal characters is either oblivious to the realities of the depression or trying to ignore them, with just enough money or social capital to avoid the realities, at least for now. The center of the storm is wealthy Millicent Jordan's ambition to host a swank dinner party for Lord and Lady Ferncliffe, who are sailing to New York from England. When the Ferncliffes accept Mrs. Jordan's invitation, she has only one week to plan the event: setting a menu, hiring music and, most crucial, inviting just the right guests. First among these is her husband Oliver, whose shipping company is laid low by the depression. He turns to Dan Packard, a wheeler-dealer with lots of cash but little refinement, for a loan. Packard's hot trophy wife Kitty craves a high-brow social life, though her past is decidedly low-brow. She is having an affair with her doctor, Joseph Talbot, a serial adulterer whose wife Lucy is on to him. Another of Talbot's patients is Oliver Jordan, who secretly calls on the doctor. The Jordans' headstrong 19-year-old daughter Paula is in love with forty-something Larry Renault, a played-out silent screen heartthrob striving to revive his career. His love is divided between Paula and the bottle. Finally, Carlotta Vance, a larger-than life former star of the stage—and old flame of Oliver's—is back in New York after ten years in Europe. Put this collection of misguided or misled folks together, throw in a few servants, stir, bake, and you have a sumptuous main course.

Thomas Glass, Mary Dunleavy, Siena Forest,
and Stephen Powell

Photo by Cory Weaver
Dinner at Eight is pleasing to listen to, but the music could not be said to approach grandeur. Visually, though, the production is dazzling. In a set designed by Alexander Dodge, a honeycomb representation of Manhattan's compression of buildings climbs both sides and the rear, and hangs from the top of the stage—the iconic spire of the Chrysler Building pointing down from the sky to the mortals below. As if to contrast the cramped multitude of structures composing New York with the opulent space afforded to the elites, massive panels with art deco patterns in hues of gold descend to create home and office settings that announce the wealth and self-importance of the lives within. Victoria Tzykun's costumes are similarly luxurious: yards of expensive fabric and trim molded into bright, sleek and silky apparel, with equal attention to hats, shoes and wraps. Robert Wierzel (lighting) and Kevin Springer (sound) add their stamps to the fantastic production design.

All of the performers serve the story terrifically, with not a weak link among them. Mary Dunleavy brings a soaring soprano to central role of Millicent Jordan, brandishing the irony of her strong, beautiful voice applied to her shallow, self-absorbed concerns. She is well matched by Stephen Powell as Oliver Jordan, using his powerful baritone to keep at bay the failures of both the financial system and his own body. Noted soprano Brenda Harris has been much applauded in past roles with Minnesota Opera; as Carlotta Vance, her lush voice and comic flair bring out the sauciness and frayed dignity of a world-wise grand dame.

Susannah Biller as Kitty Packard (the Jean Harlow role in the movie) imbeds her character with sexiness and crass ambition, using her soprano to engage in hilarious and stormy arguments with baritone Craig Irvin as her hot-headed husband. Tenor Richard Troxell plays tormented Larry Renault, gripping in his pathetic submission to events spiraling out of control. Andrew Garland is suitable as Dr. Talbot, conveying with his baritone the steadiness one might seek in a doctor, but not so much of the passion of a lover. As his long suffering wife Lucy, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala brings unexpected beauty to her aria, torn by her husband's betrayals, yet still in love with him.

While the commission for Dinner at Eight came from Minnesota Opera, this mounting is a co-production with Wexford Festival Opera, in Ireland, and The Atlanta Opera. Following this world premiere at the Ordway Center, the production will travel to each of those sites. In keeping with the collaborative nature of this venture, David Agler, Artistic Director of Wexford Festival Opera, conducts and Tomer Zvulun, General and Artistic Director of The Atlanta Opera, serves as stage director. Both gentleman bring great talent to the Ordway, with the orchestra sounding beautiful and the fluid staging carrying the story and its multiple plotlines clearly and swiftly.

Perhaps too swiftly, though this would be a fault in the libretto, not in the direction. In the first act of Dinner at Eight , the characters, their various dilemmas and entanglements with one another are clearly and nicely laid out. However, the second act feels hurried, as if the characters are eager to sit down at last to that dinner (though the fare has slipped a few notches) and therefore have taken shortcuts in sharing their stories with us. Perhaps they have nothing more to share (full disclosure, I recently viewed the 1933 movie and was probably looking forward to the greater sense of resolution Hollywood brought to the story). Still, the feeling that nothing much will be different for these penthouse denizens, even as the world around them goes to ashes, makes it hard to feel glad to have spent time in their company.

Which is not to say I was not glad to have seen and heard the lovely music, beautiful voices, and dazzling design on stage. Indeed, this Dinner at Eight is a veritable feast of enjoyments. Yet it is the type of meal that seems substantial at the time, but soon after leaves one wanting more.

Dinner at Eight plays through March 19, 2017, a co-production of Minnesota Opera, Wexford Festival Opera, and Atlanta Opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $200.00; Student and Senior (62+) discounts available for Thursday and Sunday performances. For tickets and information call 612-333-6699 or go to

Music: William Bolcom; Libretto: Mark Campbell, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber; Stage Director: Tomer Zvulun; Conductor: David Agler; Set Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Victoria Tzykun; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Sound Design: Kevin Springer; Wig and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Assistant Director: David Ramad├ęs Toro; Assistant Conductor: Jonathan Brandani; Repetiteurs: Jessica Hall and Lindsay Woodward; Production Stage Manager: Kerry Masek.

Cast: Susannah Biller (Kitty Packard), William Lee Bryan (Hotel Manager), Mary Dunleavy, (Millicent Jordan), Nadia Fayad (Tina), (Siena Forest (Paula Jordan), Andrew Garland (Dr. Joseph Talbot), Thomas Glass (Gustave), Mary Evelyn Hangley (Miss Copeland), Brenda Harris (Carlotta Vance), Craig Irvin (Dan Packard), Stephen Powell (Oliver Jordan), Alexandra Razskazoff (Miss Alden). Tom Ringberg (Eddie), Benjamin Sieverding (Max Kane), Andy Stein (violist), Richard Troxell (Larry Renault), Adriana Zabala (Lucy Talbot).

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