Operetta And Musicals Nurtured In A Serious Tradition Of Frothy Fun

A scene from the Ohio Light Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ (Photos by Matt Dilyard)

WOOSTER, Ohio — Few music lovers across the U.S. may be aware that deep in Amish country in central Ohio resides a professional company that has been presenting operetta and musical comedy for 44 years. And doing it extraordinarily well. I had the pleasure of seeing five of the company’s six shows this season, and I can hardly wait to hear what they have in store for next summer. I saw Camelot, H.M.S. Pinafore, No, No Nanette, Orpheus in the Underworld, and — a real rarity — Emmerich Kálmán’s Arizona Lady. The only show I missed was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Ohio Light Opera is based at The College of Wooster, where performances are given in the 394-seat Freedlander Theatre. The company was founded by James F. Stuart (1928-2005), a musical-theater educator and performing artist. His stated goal was to return artistic integrity to operetta, and he succeeded. Since 1979, the OLO has presented no fewer than 154 operettas and Broadway musicals and deserves enormous credit for keeping alive a musical-theater tradition that is full of joy and wonder — and lots of good tunes, too!

OLO this summer ran June 10 to July 30, and most days except Monday offered two shows a day. I was able to see five productions in three days. It is a repertory company, with each of the 31 artists taking roles in three or four productions. Tenor Jack Murphy is a good example, playing the title role in Orpheus in the Underworld and Roy Dexter, the male lead in Arizona Lady. But he also had small roles in How to Succeed and Camelot. Murphy lives in New York and is a graduate student at NYU Steinhardt. And then there is the veteran Spencer Reese. He not only choreographed all six shows and directed Pinafore but also appeared in leading or supporting roles in five productions. To visit Wooster and see so many shows within a few days is not only a pleasure in itself, but it also enables one to appreciate the astonishing versatility of virtually the entire ensemble.

Vincent Gover as Sir Joseph Porter in ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’

The heart of the OLO’s repertoire is Gilbert and Sullivan. The company has done all of the G&S operettas over the years and brings them back regularly. It has done The Pirates of Penzance 15 times, The Mikado 14 times, and Pinafore 17 times, including this year’s production. Pinafore is, in fact,  the most frequently performed work in OLO’s repertoire, with 130 performances. To say that OLO is expert in this repertoire would be an understatement.

It also needs to be emphasized that the company approaches its repertoire in the same way that early-music groups approach theirs: The music must be played in a historically informed manner and, in the case of OLO, the sets, costumes, staging, and choreography must be too. With respect to G&S, it means going back to the D’Oyly Carte traditions dating back to the 19th century and aiming for a similar sense of style. There is no room for anything like Regietheater at the Freedlander Theatre. OLO directors research what composers and librettists had in mind and, whenever possible, try to recreate what audiences saw and heard at the premieres.

OLO performances of Pinafore in Wooster began with Union Jacks flying and audience members singing a full-throated rendition of “God Save the King,” as they would have done at the first performance in London in 1878. The superb performance I witnessed this summer ensures that this Pinafore will continue to delight audiences for years to come. Vincent Gover as Sir Joseph Porter gave as clearly articulated a version of “I am the Monarch of the Sea” as one could ever hope to hear, and rangy Tzytle Steinman’s “I’m Called Little Buttercup” was wonderfully charming and well sung. Comedy and music were as one in this immaculately executed production directed by the amazing Spencer Reese. Wilson Southerland in the pit found all the right tempos and induced a real G&S sound from his excellent orchestra.

While Gilbert & Sullivan were laboring away in London producing one hit after another, Jacques Offenbach was creating opéra bouffe in Paris. His first effort was Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), and it ran for 228 performances. An enlarged and grander version was introduced in 1874. The show is based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and the first French listeners thought it was rude, lascivious, and downright blasphemous. But great fun, too, especially with the boisterous can-can at the end. This production, directed by company artistic director Steven A. Daigle, was consistently ridiculous as it ought to be, and his ensemble played it for all the laughs they could get. But they sang well, too. Once again, Gover as Jupiter was a standout, and soprano Steinman as Venus sang beautifully. Jack Murphy as Orpheus showed boundless energy. James Mitchell as John Styx gave us a memorable “When I Was King of Old Boetia.” Music director Michael Borowitz conducted an appropriately rambunctious performance.

Kálmán was one of giants of Viennese operetta in the first part of the 20th century, and OLO has produced no fewer than 14 of his works. Countess Maritza is the most often performed of his operettas, but there are several others that encapsulate Viennese charm at its best. Arizona Lady was his last, and it was left unfinished at his death in 1953. His son Charles and Gustave Beer finished the score. It was first presented on Bavarian Radio in 1954. Unfortunately, the book is weak, and the music is not only mediocre but derivative. After all, Rodgers and Hammerstein had done singing cowboys in Oklahoma! in 1943 and set the standard for that kind of thing. It doesn’t help that Kálmán’s score for Arizona Lady is often brass heavy; at Freedlander Theatre, the orchestra drowned out the singers, who often struggled to be heard even though they were wearing mikes (as they did in all the productions).

Sadie Spivey as Nanette in ‘No, No, Nanette’

Murphy as Roy Dexter was a handsome male lead, and Louisa Waycott as Lona Farrell, owner of the Sunshine Ranch, was appropriately strong-willed and sang well. It was interesting to hear the little-known Arizona Lady, but once is enough. Given Ohio Light Opera’s commitment to keeping the operetta tradition alive, it was no surprise to see copies of Kálmán’s memoir, The Unadulterated Truth, on sale in the lobby. This is a new translation from the German by Alexander Butziger, and it has just been published by the Los Angeles-based Operetta Foundation.

I was present at the world premiere of Camelot in Toronto in 1960. It was a gala affair, with celebrities gathering from far and wide to see the latest musical from the creators of My Fair Lady: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. This was Camelot in its out-of-town tryout on its way to New York, and there was tension and trauma everywhere. Lerner developed a bleeding ulcer. The show’s director, the great Moss Hart, had a heart attack; he died during the Broadway run. And the show itself was a mess, with changes made nearly every day. During its Toronto run, it didn’t finish until after midnight. Noël Coward, who was in attendance, is said to have quipped, “It’s as long as Götterdämmerung and not nearly as funny.”

Camelot needed lots of tinkering before it hit Broadway, and even then more revisions were made. But it went on to have considerable success. It was made into a film, and there have been numerous revivals. Earlier this year, Aaron Sorkin rewrote much of it and tried to give it contemporary relevance for a new production at Lincoln Center directed by Bartlett Sher.

As is its custom, OLO went back to the more or less original version for its 2023 production. But to my mind, Camelot is just not a very good piece of musical theater. The show is mainly about King Arthur’s attempt to bring peace, harmony, and democracy to his world, but there is a substantial subplot in which Lancelot, Arthur’s best friend, sleeps with his wife, Guenevere, and, as might be expected, this leads to all kinds of complications. Then Arthur’s illegitimate son Modred appears and brings Camelot crashing down by starting a war. It all ends badly but with some faint hope that a young boy Arthur encounters on the battlefield will toss his weapons aside and tell the younger generation about the glory of Camelot, where disputes were settled through discussions at the Round Table.

Such is the story, but in working it out onstage, Lerner and Loewe couldn’t quite manage to make it all convincing. Why do Lancelot and Guenevere fall in love? No passion to be seen anywhere. Must have been magic. And why does Arthur allow the nasty, scheming, and downright evil Modred into his inner circle? It doesn’t seem to take much to topple the entire kingdom. Arthur appears to be naïve and weak. Magic again? Well, yes, to some extent, at least in the OLO production, with Morgan Le Fay’s invisible walls. Not surprisingly, the Sher-Sorkin production eliminates all the magic entirely.

‘What made this production (of ‘No, No, Nanette’) so wonderfully entertaining was the tap dancing.’

In the OLO production, James Mitchell made an excellent Arthur and delivered his big speeches with strength and conviction. Sadie Spivey sang appealingly as Guenevere. Vincent Gover in the dual roles of Merlyn and Pellinore spoke with clarity and polish. The only weak spot in the cast was Nathan Seldin as Lancelot. He was suitably forceful and arrogant in his entrance song “C’est moi,” but after that he was little more than a wimp. In the play, he is a man of action as contrasted with Arthur, the man of ideas. Not so in this production. To make matters worse, in the performance I attended, there was a microphone glitch in his big number “If Ever I Would Leave You.” He could hardly be heard at all unless he was right beside Guenevere and had the benefit of her microphone.

The standard assessment of Camelot is that it has a bad book, clever lyrics, and wonderful music. For me, the music is only occasionally wonderful and becomes less interesting in Act II. What explains the enduring fascination with Camelot? Is it the association with the Kennedy presidency, and the brief moments of glamour at the court of Jackie and JFK?

Spenser Reese, here as Finch in ‘How to Succeed,’ choreographed all six shows.

No, No Nanette is a 1925 musical with a score by Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach, and book by Harbach and Frank Mandel. It ran on Broadway for 321 performances. It was a hit, not least of all for two songs that were not even in the original show when it had a trial run in Detroit in 1924 — “Tea for Two” and “I Want to be Happy — but were added to the score before it opened in Chicago en route to Broadway. It’s a silly story about a Bible publisher named Jimmy Smith, who gets into trouble with his wife Sue when it is revealed that he is supporting women in three different cities. The OLO’s assistant artistic director, Jacob Allen, was charming as Jimmy Smith, and Julia Fedor as Sue made the most of her big number, “Where Has My Hubby Gone Blues.”

Reese as Jimmy’s lawyer Billy displayed perfect comic timing throughout the show, especially in the clever business with the phone cord in “Hello, Hello, Telephone Girlie.” But what made this show so wonderfully entertaining was the tap dancing. It stopped the show in Act I and again at the end. The entire company tapped together with amazing energy and precision. Choreographer Reese must have drilled his dancers long and hard during rehearsals. As an encore, the curtain was lifted just enough to show the dancers’ feet as they repeated their stunning tap dance number. The audience loved it.