Operetta Review – Toronto Operetta Theatre/EARNEST, The Importance of Being

earnest1Toronto Operetta Theatre took a big leap of faith in 2008 by mounting the world premiere of the Canadian operetta, EARNEST, The Importance of Being. Here’s a quote from my 2008 review for Classical 96 FM.

“A new Canadian music work is a significant event, and the charming chamber operetta EARNEST, The Importance of Being, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play, should have a shelf life. Composed by Victor Davies with a libretto by Eugene Benson, the operetta is filled with hummable melodies and clever lyrics.“

With this 2015 revival, I still feel the same, only more so. From the very first notes of the overture, one knows that the evening will be filled with sparkling music. Gorgeous tunes pour out of the orchestra. Tangos and waltzes fill the air with gaiety, and delightful solos, duets and ensembles abound, not to mention inside jokes referencing Gilbert and Sullivan – so here’s my question. Why haven’t Stratford and/or Shaw put this delightful work into their seasons instead of mounting the play for the gazillionth time? All the dialogue comes from Wilde – the best lines, in fact (“I hear that her hair has turned quite gold from grief”) – and librettist Benson has carried Wilde’s wit into the lyrics…or I think he has, because to be utterly truthful, for the most part, the singers’ diction this time around is mush, with the women being the worst offenders. TOT is the same outfit as VOICEBOX Opera in Concert which has surtitles capability. Ergo, use the projector for the English lyrics in the operettas, and put us out of our misery. Nonetheless, despite words being missed, Larry Beckwith’s conducting is star quality, romantic or vibrant by turn. He really brought the lovely score to life. You can hear the fun in the music.

earnest3I didn’t get a chance in the 2008 review to mention a very clever musical joke in the operetta, so I’m now making up for lost time. Both Gwendolen and Cecily rhapsodize about the name Earnest in lovely coloratura runs. When, however, they try to rhapsodize about the names Jack and Algernon respectively, their vocalizing goes sour. It is very, very funny, and because it is repeated several times, the audience begins laughing in expectation as soon as the singing of the names begins.

Alas, the cast doesn’t really have the classical acting chops for pacing and timing, and a lot of Wilde’s dialogue is underplayed, but no one on stage is ever stiff. They all make a stab at character and director Guillermo Silva-Marin has added nice touches of realism, for example, the way in which Algernon and Jack lounge around. As always, Silva-Marin’s stage décor, is very effective.

If the acting is just serviceable, the singing is quite accomplished. The best voice with the best diction comes from baritone Cameron McPhail (John Worthing). As soon as he started to sing, out came a rich, rolling, commanding sound that made one take notice. Thomas Macleay (Algernon Moncrieff) has a pleasant light lyric tenor that is most suitable for his flighty character. Reliable character tenor Gregory Finney (Rev. Canon Chasuble) always gives a good performance in supporting roles. Manservants Sean Curran (Lane) and Diego Catatá (Merryman) are the competent low voices needed to fill in on ensembles.

earnest2On the distaff side, Charlotte Knight (Cecily) is a formidable coloratura soprano. Davies’ music has her chirping all up and down the scale which she pulls of with panache. There has to be a Queen of the Night in her future with her precision placement and easy top. Mezzo-soprano Michelle Garlogh (Gwendolen) has a very distinctive voice because vibrato is a dominant feature. A constant vibrato can be a distraction for audiences who prefer a clearer sound. It’s a matter of taste, but, unfortunately, not to mine. Mezzo-soprano Jean Stilwell (Lady Bracknell) has one of the great voices of her fach in Canada, rich, creamy and lush. Her acting performance, however, is a disappointment. This singer who has sizzled as Carmen and Magdalena is just too flat and bland as the fearsome Lady Bracknell. Sadly. she has not transfered over her usual charisma to this role. Mezzo-soprano Rosalind McArthur (Miss Prism) is one of TOT’s staples, and she, like Finney, never gives a bad performance.

In conclusion, I’d be happy to hear EARNEST, The Importance of Being in another seven years, if not sooner. The operetta is a keeper, and deserves to be off the shelf.

(Toronto Operetta Theatre, EARNEST, The Importance of Being, Jane Mallett Theatre, Apr. 29 to May 3, 2015.)

 

 

 

 

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Theatre Review – Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers

Neil Simon’s 1991 play Lost in Yonkers cleaned up at the Tony Awards and won a Pulitzer Prize. Two decades later, the play still has legs, and there is much to like in the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company production.

The plot centres around the Kurnitz family.  Young Jay (Alessandro Costantini) and Arty (Jesse Shimko) are sent to live with their stern grandmother (Marion Ross) while their father Eddie (David Eisner) goes on the road selling scrap metal during the war. He has to pay off a loan shark for medical debts stemming from his late wife’s illness. Also in the cast are Eddie’s gangster brother Louie (Ari Cohen), his mentally challenged sister Bella (Finnerty Steeves) and his passive sister Gert (Sheila McCarthy).

This being Neil Simon, we know we are in for a lot of zingy one liners, but that we will get hit by the dark side sooner or later. It’s to director Jim Warren’s credit that he gets both the laughs and the poignancy. Sue LePage’s set and Lori Hickling’s costumes capture the 1940s perfectly.

Steeves, who played Bella in the recent New York revival, is a last minute replacement for Linda Kash. (Kash had to withdraw due to a death in the family, but will be back for the final weekend performances.) Steeves is just lovely in the role, capturing Bella’s childish vulnerability as well as her feistiness. Cohen has never turned in a bad performance and his Louis is both dangerous and charming. McCarthy makes her small role of Gert count for something. The young boys, Costantini and Shimko, may be a bit strident, and seem to be played all on one note, but they get their laughs. Eisner makes for a sympathetic Eddie.

The weak link is Ross, a well-known American television actress. She just is not frightening or commanding as Grandma Kurnitz, although her confrontation scene with Bella works well. We hear a lot about her character before she makes her appearance, but it is more of a whimper than a bang when she does come on stage. Did HGJTC choose Ross for her name power? I can’t believe there wasn’t a Canadian actress who could do the part better. Grandma’s strength and will power dominate the story and they just aren’t there in Ross’ performance.

Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon, Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, (starring Marion Ross, Finnerty Steeves, Ari Cohen, Sheila McCarthy, David Eisner, Alessandro Costantini and Jesse Shimko, directed by Jim Warren), Jane Mallett Theatre, May 12 to Jun. 10, 2012