European and American Operetta

Only Girl

A 1914 Victor Herbert Show Given in Revised Format

A-Only GirlSince Victor Herbert wrote stage musicals from 1895 to 1924, it is no wonder that his music (and plots) evolved from the European operetta type (“Naughty Marietta” and “The Princess Pat”) to shows like “The Only Girl” (1914) that sound like early Jerome Kern with their ragtime numbers and contemporary plots.

With available CD recordings of several Herbert works (with dialogue) from the Ohio Light Opera, it is a pleasant pastime to trace this development. Now Light Opera of New York is joining in with recordings on the Albany label like “Orange Blossoms” (1921) and now “The Only Girl.”

I must emphasize that this “Only Girl” is a “revised edition.” The original, as the very helpful program notes tell us, had more dialogue than music and seemed “more like a play with some good music.” So Stage Director Michael Phillips scuttled most of the dialogue that was filled with references to current events, revised what was left and kept but rearranged the songs.

The weak plot involves a temperamental lyricist nicknamed Kim (Kyle Erdos-Knapp), who finds his perfect composer in Ruth Wilson (Antoni Mendezona). He cannot bear the thought of a female partner and … Well, one can guess and who can really have any deep feelings for such clichéd characters?

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Victor Herbert

The songs are mostly light hearted and typical of their times. There is a scene in which the men compete in a song contest with the women and sing an anti-marriage song, “Bachelors don’t learn a bit of sense.” The women reply with “Ages ago, as you well know” and are given the prize. And the plot does not advance by one millimeter.

And since this is a show about putting on a show, a few songs from the show within the show are merely sung as part of a rehearsal. But the idea of a song furthering the story was not an important one back then.

Mendezona’s voice is operatic, which is appropriate for a work with songs that would be at home in Herbert’s earlier works, while Erdos-Knapp’s sounds more like those heard in current musicals—youthful but not powerful. The secondary roles include singers with strong voices, such as Sarah Best as Jane, and comic nasal voices from the other females.

The score is very pleasant without having any really memorable numbers, but it is conducted with a passion by Gerald Steichen. Well worth the hearing, especially for local theatre groups looking for something out of the ordinary to perform.

European and American Operetta

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.

European and American Operetta

Victor Herbert’s “The Fortune Teller” Comes to Life on CD


A-OLO-Fortune TellerVictor Herbert’s “The Fortune Teller Comes to Life on CD

It is interesting to note that Victor Herbert’s “The Fortune Teller” opened in 1898, only two years after Gilbert & Sullivan’s last collaboration, “The Grand Duke.” In the latter work, one man finds himself engaged to four women; in the former one woman finds herself engaged to three men. Even Herbert’s music in “Fortune Teller” sounds similar to parts of “Grand Duke.” But in the world of musical theatre, such things are bound to happen.

The Ohio Light Opera has a long series of operatic recordings, to which “The Fortune Teller” is the latest entry. It is  available in a 2-CD set from Albany Records. The book and lyrics by Henry B. Smith tell the story of a Gypsy named Musette who is a dead ringer for the prima ballerina of the Budapest Opera, Irma (both roles sung here by Amy Maples).

The penniless Count Berezowski (Logan Walsh) wants to marry Irma because of her bracelet (just accept that for now), but Musette poses as Irma and winds up engaged to him while Irma disguises herself as her twin brother Fedor, lest he be charged with desertion. (I am not making this up!) At any rate, the dialogue is included in both the recording and booklet and can be cheerfully ignored.

More than one Herbert tune does not quite make it, such as the military choruses, which suffer by comparison with Sullivan’s march in “Patience.” But two melodies have often been sung out of context on collections of Herbert’s songs: “Romany life,” which celebrates the Gypsy world outlook, and the hauntingly beautiful “Gypsy love song,” which is sung to entice Musette into staying with her people.

In fact, I have grown so used to hearing sopranos and mezzos sing the latter that I was surprised to find it is a man, Sandor (David Kelleher-Flight), who is assigned this gem.

Although one or two of the men read their lines in that “this is an operetta” lilt, the silly plot can stand that treatment, while the other musical pieces range from pretty good to exquisite.

And I am assured by John Ostendorf, the Recording Producer, that the dialogue is found in the original script though it is highly abridged.

Finally, Conductor Steven Byess leads singers and orchestra with brio. Good work all around.


“Mlle. Modiste” Anticipates the Early Broadway Musical

 “Mlle. Modiste” Anticipates the Early Broadway Musical        A-OLO-Mlle Modiste 

By 1905, it was starting to be difficult to tell Victor Herbert’s operettas from the musical comedies of that time. Sigmund Romberg’s “Student Prince” (1924) for example, sounds very European, while Herbert’s “Mlle. Modiste” (1905) sounds like early Jerome Kern. The tunes are snappy, the lyrics bordering on intelligent now and then, the plot (alas) just as cliché-ridden as most of the others.

Still, it is so good to hear the score with most of the original dialogue, albeit only on CD, well performed by a company that is turning more and more to early musicals. Yes, it is the Ohio Light Opera that is featured on this 2-CD set issued some time ago on the Albany label. Aside from an occasional line reading that implies “isn’t this a funny show?” the singing is up to OLO standards, the acting is more than adequate, given the lines the cast has to speak, and the whole thing is a lot of fun.

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Victor Herbet

The two “big tunes” are “Kiss me again” (that comes as the last part of what is known as an “audition” song) from Act I and “I want what I want (when I want it)” from Act II. The funniest lyrics of all—and every English teacher should copy them and hand them out to the class—are those in “Ze English language.” (The rest of the show is done without the annoying “French” accents.)

The plot is concerned with Fifi (Sara Ann Mitchell), a salesgirl in a Paris hat shop, who wants to be a singing star. She is courted by Capt. Etienne (Todd Strange), whose family considers her too low for him, and by the pathetic Gaston (Jacob Allen). It is easy to guess which one she loves and which one gets her at the end.

Conductor Michael Borowitz instills good humor into the playing of his Ohio Light Opera Festival musicians and vocalists.

To those who miss memorable melodies in what once were musical comedies and to those who are interested in the development of the American musical stage play, “Mlle. Modiste” is not to be passed over.

Herbert tried his hand at operatic works such as “Natoma,” a tale of an Indian maiden. But the public preferred the bouncy tunes of “The Red Mill” and there we are.

By the way, my comparison with early Kern can be backed by hearing “Mlle Modiste” and Kern’s “The Cabaret Girl,” also available in the OLO series of recordings.

Broadway and British Musicals

A Victor Herbert Smash That Failed

A-OLO-Dream CityA Victor Herbert Smash That Failed

When the great vaudeville team of Weber and Fields broke up, Joe Weber wanted to create and star in something completely different. With a book and lyrics by Edgar Smith, “Dream City & The Magic Knight” came to be, and none other than Victor Herbert was asked to compose the score. It opened in 1906 to great critical acclaim…and then fell into total oblivion. What happened?

Jump to the present. The Ohio Light Opera Company, known for its complete CD recordings of Gilbert & Sullivan and other operettas, now and then resurrects an old Broadway musical. It has recorded a version of this “lost” work on the Troy label. The artistic director, Steven Daigle, explains briefly in the program notes that he has restored a lot of the original show and made several changes.

The show is in two parts or “puffs.” The first tells the story (with resemblance to “Coconuts” and “The Music Man”) of how J. Bilkington Holmes (Nathan Brian) convinces Mr. Dinglebender (Daniel Neer) to sell his farm out on Malaria City, Long Island, NY  to make way for Dream City. Among the other are Mrs. Dinglebender (Julie Wright Costa), Nancy (Natalie Ballenger), Amanda (Alexa Devlin), and  Seth (Andrew Maughan).

And special mention for the cast of the opera sequence: Elsa (Emily Nelson), Lohengrin (Clark Sturdevant), Ortrud (Julie Wright Costa), Frederick (Adam Smerud), and King (Ted Christopher). Nancy’s imitations of some famous vaudeville stars of the day have little meaning to listeners today; but the original audience loved them.

The second “puff” takes place in the newly built Dream City. Dinglebender is dismayed that he must sit through a very long opera by Wagner called “The Magic Knight.” This spoof of “Lohengrin” takes 30 minutes of playing time—and, alas, is not very funny today, even those familiar with the opera. The denouement of the show is too silly…and I won’t reveal it here.

Although half the running time of the first puff is given to dialogue, the tuneful Herbert songs, especially a ragtime number in the second puff, make it all worthwhile. The critics raved about it when it opened; but Weber tried to bilk Herbert out of his profits, and …you can read about that in the program notes.

The OLO cast is livelier than I have ever heard them, reading the corny dialogue with conviction, if with somewhat slipping accents now and then.  Steven Byess seems to be having a grand time conducting and it is infectious. This recording is a valuable addition to the collections of those who love the old musicals that paved the way for Gershwin, Kern, and Rodgers.




European and American

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.