Snappy double play at Chicago Folks Operetta

The Hyde Park Herald (IL)-June 20, 2012
Author: M.L. Rantala, Classical Music Critic, The Hyde Park Herald
Edition: Volume 130, Issue 25
Section: Music
Page: 9, 19

What: “The Circus Princess”
When: through July 1
What “The Cousin from Nowhere”
When: through June 30
Where: The Chopin Theater, 1542 W. Division St.
Phone: 708-383-2742

Chicago Folks Operetta, a small troupe devoted to mounting Viennese and American operettas from the turn of the 20th century, is currently offering two splendid productions: “The Circus Princess” (music by Emmerich Kálmán and libretto by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald) and “The Cousin from Nowhere” (music by Eduard Künneke and libretto by Hermann Haller and Fritz Oliven).

The two are very different. “Princess” features a large cast, period costumes and feel and lots of action on stage. “Cousin” sports a small cast, whimsical modern dress and a smart Spartan staging. Both are infused with enthusiasm and energy and both feature CFO’s special sauce: wonderful, witty English translations by Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glavgov that are articulately rendered so that you never miss a laugh.

Each of the stories center on people pretending to be someone else resulting in heartache and confusion, with an eventual resolution that yields love and happiness as well as true identities. Nearly all the principal roles are filled by members of either the Lyric Opera of Chicago chorus or the chorus of the CSO.

“The Circus Princess” tells the story of Feodora, a rich widow who falls for a man masquerading as a prince at lavish parties but who earns his living as a masked circus performer. When the widow marries the putative prince and then is told he’s actually the violin-playing tight-wire act, she’s appalled at being dubbed the Circus Princess and leaves him. But all ends well, as Feodora really loved him all along and it turns out he really is a prince, just not the one he originally claimed.

This operetta is jam-packed with fun and director Bill Walters deftly fills the stage with hussars, dancers, clowns, jugglers, a spiffing aerialist and more. The stage has several levels at the back and sides, so even when it’s full of folks, you can see and hear them all.

The singing is always capable and at times rises to simply marvelous. My favorites were Alison Kelly and Tyler Thompson, singing the roles of the second romantic couple, a failed circus performer and a waiter. “The Hussar March” in the second act had the audience clapping along to the beat as the men bounced merrily about the stage. Hyde Parker August Tye choreographs numerous perky dances all beautifully rendered by six young women from our neighborhood. At the back and sides of the stage there are panels onto which Liviu Pasare projects images that expertly heighten the sense of place and time, a stunning use of modern technology to impart an old-world feel. Anthony Barrese conducts the small orchestra with a pleasing light touch.

“The Cousin from Nowhere” features only nine characters, but they are all realized with zing. Orphan and heiress Julia will come of age soon, so her guardians, Josse and Wimpel, are eager to marry her off to their own heirs, August and Egon, in order that Julia’s money stays under their control. But Julia remains true to Roderich, her childhood crush who has been away for seven years. August is bidden to come and court Julia, but no one in the house has seen him for years and so they fail to recognize him. Learning of Julia’s love, he claims to be Roderich and Julia falls for him. When the real Roderich arrives, he and Julia’s best friend fall instantly in love. While there’s some consternation for the women when they find they love the “wrong” man, this pairing turns out to be stable, and all are happy in the end.

Geoffrey Agpalo steals the show as August, with flexible and very attractive singing, coupled with a splendid comic sense. Elizabeth Schleicher is a pretty Julia who pouts and swoons with ease. Rose Guccione and Robert Morrisey are clever and entertaining as the couple who scheme to marry off Julia but are always one step behind understanding what is actually happening. Conductor Matthew Cataldi coaxes bubbly music from the pit.

The stage contains nothing more than two clear plastic chairs as main props, and when Josse and Wimpel sit to eat at dinner the table is nothing more than a rectangle of light projected onto the stage floor.

Characters only occasionally carry a few other props, but they add just the right amount of humorous punch. Egon (Damon Cole) gets a big laugh when he takes the tissue from around a bouquet of flowers and creates an origami swan, and Maestro Cataldi briefly becomes part of the story when he offers August a novelty umbrella. Director Elizabeth Margolis knows how to make something small something special, as these little touches, along with her amusing blocking, make a visually engaging, very smart production.

The costumes are just the right amount of silly, helping to create a pleasing fairy tale effect. My favorite was Julia’s simple white knee length dress with a quirky hooped skirt.

With both afternoon and evening performances, you can see both of these charming productions in a single day, as I did last Saturday. For more information visit ChicagoFolksOperetta.org.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s