REVIEW: Ohio Light Opera – A long-held dream exceeds expectations!!

A long-held dream exceeds expectations!!
Ohio Light Opera 7/14/-7/15/11

I’m not sure how many years I’ve wished for the opportunity (and income) to indulge in an Ohio Light Opera Bash – probably since they landed in Wooster some 33 years ago. This year, finally, my wish came true, and I was able to spend two entire days in that lovely college town, while enjoying (mild word!) four (count ‘em—FOUR!!) productions over the two days of July 14 and 15.

The nearly perfect scheduling of one Viennese confection (Lehar’s The Merry Widow); a classic of American Musical Theater (Lerner & Lowe’s Camelot); an early American Operetta (Jubilee by Cole Porter) and a Gilbert & Sullivan masterpiece (Pirates of Penzance) presented the offer too good to even think of refusing. The weather was wonderful – although the performances were in the air-conditioned, very comfortable Freedlander Theatre. (Weather is still important in these circumstances, however, as between shows, one has time to walk about the town, or enjoy patio dining at one of the many remarkable restaurants in Wooster.)

Ohio Light Opera is an entirely professional organization, from top to bottom. The singers and orchestra members range from just beginning a career in their chosen field, to ‘old’ pros (old in experience—not necessarily in years). The tech staff is likewise a mixture of new and returning, very capable craftspeople. The final lure, however, must be the continuing dedication of the entire operation to the tradition of providing the only such concentrated devotion anywhere in the known world, to this delightful repertoire – 19th and 20th Century operettas and musicals from every musical heritage.

The cherry on the top of this enchanting dessert is that the same performers may be seen in various of the seven productions in totally different characterizations. This provides the avid audience member with a wide range of memories from which to choose, while mentally wandering back through the entire experience.

(Note: as of this date, tickets are still available for six of the seven productions yet remaining – some 30 performances, in all. Jubilee is for all practical purposes, sold out! Hooray for them!)

Viennese operetta is frequently referred to as the ‘whipped cream’ without which no Viennese confection is complete. It requires a very light hand with the directing or one quickly becomes submerged in a morass of details. Associate Artistic Director Julie Wright Costa most assuredly knows the secret of keeping The Merry Widow light. She was blessed with a gorgeous Hanna Glawari (the Widow of the title) in soprano Anna-Lisa Hackett. Count Danilo (the hero) was OLO veteran baritone Gary Moss. Another OLO veteran, baritone Boyd Mackus was Baron Zeta, and his wife Valencienne was the luscious soprano, Karla Hughes.

True love never runs smooth, of course, and Valencienne’s amour was tenor Will Perkins as Camille. The poor Baron was torn between wanting to keep the Widow’s huge dowry for the country of Pontevedro, and trying to keep an eye on his wife. Mackus is a master at the bluster and comic exaggeration so necessary to the successful functioning of a government within an operetta.

Eventually, it all works out, of course, but such delights that ensue during the waiting! You’ll leave the theater humming some of the more familiar tunes. Promise.

Camelot is one of the oldest tales in the world – after those in the Bible, of course. The original stories about King Arthur date from the 1100s or thereabouts, some three hundred plus years before the collection (Le Morte d’Arthur) by Sir Thomas Malory which dates from 1485, was published by Caxton. Portions of the story originated in middle France, but most are of English origin. Arthur and his subsequent legends are now entirely British. It was T. H. White’s ‘The Once and Future King’ (four novels published in one volume in 1958) that was used by Alan Jay Lerner to create the now classic musical theater work. It opened in New York in December, 1960, has had three revivals since (1980, 1981 and 1993,) and was made into a movie in 1967.

No wonder the opening night in Toronto was more than four hours long! Fortunately, this production is somewhat shorter. But no less enchanting. In 2000, Camelot was the first American musical staged at OLO; Cleveland native, baritone Ted Christopher was Arthur then, as now. He was marvelous as the slightly giddy monarch; giddy at the arrival of his longed-for bride, the breathtakingly lovely soprano Raina Thorne as Guenevere. Of course, Lancelot was merely waiting in the wings; baritone Christopher Cobbett in his debut season with OLO, was (in my estimation) a bit too arrogant and self-centered. (I do realize he has to be that way, but it makes him such an unsympathetic character, one wonders how the naïve and trusting, yet intelligent Jenny could possibly have fallen in love with him. The lure of the ‘bad boy’, I suppose.)

When tenor Jacob Allen appeared in Act 2 as Mordred, I kept envisioning him as a serpent, he was so adept at slithering around the stage. Yet another OLO veteran, he was delightfully devilish, setting in motion all sorts of happenings. Tenor Nicholas Wuehrmann did double-duty as both the impatient Merlin and the slightly-daffy Pellinore, while Julie Wright Costa was a somewhat eerie Morgan Le Fey.

Jubilee could have had no other purpose in life than to be sheer enjoyment! And that it was. With music and lyrics by Cole Porter, and book by Moss Hart, it could not be anything but fun, accompanied by fabulous music. Unfortunately, history got in the way of success at its debut in 1935, leaving the show as a sort of orphan. Five months before it opened, King George V and Queen Mary celebrated the 25th anniversary of their coronation (Jubilee, of course!) but only a few months later the King had died. Although they were certainly not the models for the royal family depicted in Jubilee, the situation hit rather close to home, and the show never regained its feet.

The music, however, happily lives on. ‘Begin the Beguine’, ‘Just One of Those Things’, and to a lesser extent, ‘A Picture of Me Without You’ and ‘The Kling-Kling Bird on The Divi-Divi Tree’ have never left the repertoire. With any luck at all, this revival should begin an entire procession of such events around the country.

The story concerns a royal family which rebels (for a short time, at least) and abandons its palace in search of adventure. The king delights in trying to do magic tricks with a piece of string; the queen is a devotee of film, especially Mowgli (a Tarzan-like creature who is enacted by movie star Charles Rausmiller); the prince adores Karen O’Kane, a sensational singer, while the princess is captivated by the words of playwright Eric Dare.

As the royals escape their moldering castle exile and end up in New York, they meet up with the enchanting characters they’ve only dreamed of meeting. The slightly goofy king (Ted Christopher) is taken in hand by ‘the hostess with the mostes’, Elsa Maxwell, here named Eva Standing in a madcap depiction by Sarah Best; the queen (Julie Wright Costa in a fabulous comic portrayal ) stumbles over her Mowgli, (Joey Wilgenbusch) and as Butch, gets swimming lessons from him and his pals; Prince James (Jacob Allen) finds the glamorous chanteuse Karen O’Kane (Raina Thorne channeling Ginger Rogers); and Princess Diana (Natalie Berrenger) finds that Eric Ware is indeed delightful. Nicholas Wuerhmann does Noel Coward to a T!

The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty finds young orphan Frederic facing two major disappointments; he was apprenticed to a pirate instead of a pilot (thanks to his slightly deaf nursemaid Ruth) and after all, he was born on February 29, which means that although he has lived for twenty-one years, he has had only five birthdays. This latter is most important, as it means his apprenticeship will not end until 1940! Keep in mind Pirates originated in 1879, and you can easily imagine the young man’s distress!

For dear Frederic has finally seen a female personage other than his nurse for the very first time! She is the lovely Mabel, daughter of Major-General Stanley, who has many daughters! The scruffy pirates, however, also have a problem; they cannot injure an orphan. When the Major-General claims himself to be an orphan, the pirates give up in disgust and head back to sea. Eventually, thanks to an intrepid group of policemen, all is made right, and the girls may indeed marry their reformed pirates.

As Mabel, soprano Amy Maples sent her voice soaring in flights of coloratura fancy with absolute assurance and accuracy. Tenor Evan McCormack was entirely convincing as the handsome young Frederic whose devotion to duty must outweigh all other considerations. Drat it all, anyway! Mezzo-soprano Jacquelyn Kress displayed a warm, rich voice as well as a great sense of comic timing. Baritone Christopher Cobbett was extremely well-suited to the role of The Pirate King. And much more likeable, to boot. Ted Christopher was the Sergeant of Police, in a delightful sort of Charlie Chaplin manner.

Of course, any production of Pirates is heavily dependent on its Major-General. Nicholas Wuehrmann, who also directed, displayed yet another facet of his immense talent as comic, dancer and singer. He was absolutely wonderful in his first-act patter-song ‘I am the very model of the modern major-general’, playing the old fellow as a slightly-addled poet seeking just the right word for the rhyme – here, there and everywhere. He led the orchestra on a merry chase during the final chorus. But it was his second act performance in nightgown that really brought the house down. And why not, as he ended up in the dancing swans routine (reminiscent of Swan Lake) and then became the ‘dying swan’.

As director, he kept the pace rather brisk, adding in a few audio and visual gags for effect. They didn’t distort anything, but if you blinked you might wonder why everyone around you was laughing. The band of pirates was enchantingly goofy during the evening, and consistently drew loud applause throughout. After his suave performance as Noel Coward in the afternoon’s Jubilee, it was strange to see him in a wondrous crop of mutton-chop whiskers as the Major-General.

In several second banana roles, Njegus in The Merry Widow and The Prime Minister Lord Wyndham in Jubilee, tenor Jon Gerhard was fabulous! Soprano Sarah Best displayed the reasons she’s one of two dance captains for the troupe. She was terrific in all four shows. Without listing the entire cast, it’s impossible to single out each of the principals. Please believe there was not a weak portrayal in the bunch.

Music Director Michael Borowitz conducted the excellent orchestra in Jubilee, while Principal Guest Conductor J. Lynn Thompson conducted Camelot, The Merry Widow and The Pirates of Penzance. Steven Daigle was the stage director for Camelot and Jubilee, Julie Wright Costa helmed a light and romantic The Merry Widow, while Nicholas Wuehrmann was in charge of The Pirates of Penzance.

The technical elements of Ohio Light Opera are mind-boggling, but they have a solid staff to keep things moving smoothly. Choreographer Carol Hageman excels at rhythmic movement on the frequently too-small stage, as she did in all four productions. Costume design for Camelot and The Pirates of Penzance was by Charlene Alexis Gross, while Whitney Locher displayed her ability with Jubilee and The Merry Widow.

Scenic Design for Camelot and Jubilee was by Kimberly V. Powers, with assistance from C. Murdock Lucas on The Merry Widow. (The scrim for this latter one was a scene from a ballroom with people. Gasps rose from the audience when the scrim lifted to reveal actors who had been in place—unmoving for perhaps five minutes!) The scrims in Camelot were also noteworthy, being made to represent three very beautiful and huge stained-glass windows. Eric Keil designed a seascape for The Pirates of Penzance, complete with half their ship moving in and out! Blue skies with white clouds overhead easily transformed to the ruined chapel of the second act.

Lighting Designer Krystal Kennel created day and night or in between for Camelot, The Pirates of Penzance and The Merry Widow. Erich Keil did the same for Jubilee. The excellent Production Stage Manager for all four productions is Katie Humphrey, or one of her assistants.

For tickets and/or other information, visit the website: or call 1-330.263.2345.

From Cool Cleveland contributor Kelly Ferjutz, who writes: My most recently published book is Ardenwycke Unveiled (e-book and trade paper). Cerridwen has another contemporary romance from me, But Not For Love, currently available only as an e-book, but perhaps will be in print later this year. I hope to soon get around to completing some of the 30+ incomplete books in my computer!

Actually, I’ve just re-issued my very first published book (from Berkley in NY 1993) Secret Shores which is available now in print, plus print and as a Kindle.

By the way, Cerridwen has also accepted two of my short stories in their Scintillating Samples (complimentary reads) area: Song of the Swan and Unexpected Comfort. I love photography as well, as you can see here. Occasionally I teach writing workshops and sometimes do editing or ghostwriting on a free-lance basis. But over and above everything else, there’s always been the writing. I can’t imagine my life without it.

And now, after more than a few requests, I’ve started a blog about writing. You can find it here.

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