Victor Herbert’s “Orange Blossoms” Has a Broadway Sound

A-Orange BlosssomsVictor Herbert’s “Orange Blossoms” Has a Broadway Sound

Up to now, the Ohio Light Opera Company has had a near monopoly on CD recordings of old time musicals. But now Light Opera of Manhattan has weighed in on the Albany label with Victor Herbert’s 1922 “Orange Blossoms.”

Herbert is forever connected with operettas, mostly “Naughty Marietta” and “New Moon”—and that mostly because of the Macdonald-Eddy film versions. But he knew how to keep up with the times, and “Orange Blossoms” is as much of the Broadway genre as other shows that appeared in the early 20s such as “Lady, Be Good,” “No, No, Nanette,” and “Dearest Enemy.” Yet it is also as much of the operetta genre as works like “The Student Prince” and “The Vagabond King.”  It is this “keeping up while looking back” aspect of the score that makes this recording so interesting.

The plot revolves around Roger (Glenn Seven Allen) who wants to marry Helen (Sarah Callinan) who is a Brazilian divorcee. But he will lose an inheritance if he does; and so he will marry Kitty (Natalie Ballinger), who will then divorce him and leave him free to marry Helen. Get it?  Others in on the plot are Tillie (Lisa Flanagan) and Jimmy (Ben Liebert).

But it is the songs that count. “A kiss in the dark” is the only number from this score that is familiar; and alas Ms. Ballinger does not have the voice that will erase memories of other artists who have recorded this gem, such as Beverley Sills. However, she and the rest of the cast are certainly up to the less demanding songs that Herbert has provided.

There is an interesting duet for Tillie and Jimmy in which they plan to live “way out west in Jersey,” thereby anticipating Larry Hart’s “Way out west on West End Avenue” by fifteen years. Critics back then noted that the music in the last act is not as good as what went before. But this happens in “Student Prince” and “Die Fledermaus.” To be honest, while most of “Orange Blossoms” is entertaining, little of it is very memorable.

Conductor Evans Haile makes a good case for the score, however, and I am especially happy with the natural way in which the dialogue is delivered. None of this “isn’t this funny?” intonation that is so prevalent in productions of older operettas. I am not happy, however, with a “revised edition” by director Michael Phillips. If you are going to revive a gem, revive it as written. It is a director’s challenge to make even weak dialogue sound good.

Babes in Toyland

Two More Vintage Musicals Appear on DVDs

A-VAI-Babes in Toyland

Here is yet another  addition, actually two of them, to the Video Artists International series of vintage televised musicals from the 1950s both of which are most unusual.

   Designed for Christmas viewing, Victor Herbert’s “Babes in Toyland” was telecast on December 18, 1954 and again on December 24, 1955 with only two cast changes. Since both were available as black and white kinescopes, the good folk at VAI chose to include both on a single disc.

What makes this production even more valuable is that it is the only one seen on small or big screens to keep to the original plot. Will the beautiful Bo-Peep find her sheep? Will the horrible Silas Barnaby get his wicked way? Allow me to ignore the plot, as I am sure all but children will do, and reassure my readers that the music is the essence. How can one dislike a duet based on a math homework problem?

There are five writers listed who have “adapted” the show to fit into a 90-minute (less for commercials) slot. So allowances must be made by those who know the original version.

Those who lived through the 1950s will recognize in the casts, many a personality: Dave Garroway (Santa Claus in a framing device), Dennis Day (Tommy Tucker), Wally Cox (Grumio), Jack E. Leonard (Barnaby), and even Bill & Cora Baird and their Marionettes. The soprano lead of Jane Piper is Jo Sullivan in 1954 and Barbara Cook in 1955. That provides a nostalgia trip on top of it all.

The highlight of “Babes in Toyland” is obviously the “March of the Toys” in which the show’s most famous music is heard and in which the choreographer can be as imaginative as possible. Given the small area of the television studio, Rod Alexander did a very nice job, using both marionettes and live dancers. In fact, the telecasts produced by Max Liebman make good use of the Rod Alexander and Bambi Linn team.

While the Clown routines might prove a bit tiresome for adults, the tiny tots will eat them up. Entertainers, however, will appreciate the changes in the Clown sequence in 1954 and 1955.

I have always thought that the opening and closing number, “Toyland,” has a slight apologetic ring to it. Asking an adult audience to watch Mother Goose characters does perhaps call for an excuse. (The 1903 original was designed as a Christmas review.) But somehow the song works and therefore so does the show.