Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Gershwins' Lady Be Good. Ohio Light Opera

George & Ira Gershwin.  Lady Be Good.
Performed by the Ohio Light Opera, July 14, 2013.  
Ohio Light Opera:

Lady Be Good, George and Ira Gershwin’s 1924 smash Broadway production, is a fascinating mish mosh of great music, low comedy, singing, dancing, ethnic stereotypes, silly complex plotting, and a happy ending.  The Ohio Light Opera does a fine job on this period musical.  Their production, sets, costumes, and choreography are all first rate, and one of the many reasons for going is to see their creative sets, scene changes, and delightful ensemble costumes.  Of course, the main reason is the music.  I saw the third performance of the musical on July 14th at the Freedlander Theatre on the campus of the College of Wooster.  It’s a great venue, with fine seating and an intimate setting.
The plot is, as with most musicals of the period, ridiculous, but that’s not why one goes to see it.  Dick and Susie are brother and sister.  Dick is in love with Shirley, and she returns the affection, but since the siblings are poor and on the street, they each come up with a plan to get some money through trickery.  Josephine, who is rich, loves Dick, and so he plans to marry her to get Susie off the street.  Meanwhile, Susie falls for a hobo (secretly the rich Jack Robinson), who is reputed to have died, and she and a lawyer, Watty, hatch a plot to get his estate by having her pose as his Mexican widow.  Let’s just stop there, because it will take two more paragraphs to sort it all out.  The story is preposterous, but in the end, four couples are happily united.  In the meantime, they sing and dance their way through the plot, and that’s where we will concentrate our efforts.  
First of all, the orchestra, led by Steven Byess is, as usual, very enjoyable.  Every year they have a mix of new and veteran musicians, but every year Byess whips them into a crack musical ensemble.  They play Gershwin’s music in fine form.  The ensemble singer/dancers were beautifully costumed in the various scenes, and their singing and dancing were very good, although in the opening number, there were a couple of folks out of synch, and the sopranos tended not to enunciate very well.  They sounded pretty though.  
The stars shone.  Or perhaps they shined.  In either case, the main characters were excellent singers, and in some cases pretty good actors.  While all of them were strong, I want to make special mention of two, Natalie Ballenger and Christopher Nelson.  Ballenger, as Susie Trevor, is just delightful.  A veteran of the OLO, her singing is gorgeous, strong, and clear.  She is also a very good actress and extremely funny in her role, although she is unfortunately saddled with two ethnic parts, the Mexican widow and the Swiss Miss, that are difficult to swallow in the contemporary world (although in 1924 nobody thought much of it, I suppose).  At least the widow has something to do with the plot.  The whole Swiss Miss business has nothing to do with the rest of the musical, and seems like a throw-in by the Gershwins to have an extra song.  It’s really dumb, bordering on embarrassing.  Ballenger rescues both characters to the extent that she can.  

A different production, but a cool picture

Christopher Nelson is new to the OLO and a fantastic addition to the cast.  He has the kind of strong, clear tenor a leading man needs to have in this kind of musical.  Although a bit stiff as an actor, his singing is just wonderful, and he and Ballenger make a great pair on the stage.  The other main characters are also fine singers.  Nathan Brian as Dick is very good, and delivers his lines well too.  Elise Kennedy also does a fine job as Dick’s heartthrob, and plays the innocent well as a foil for the more sophisticated women characters in the cast.  
As a period piece, Lady Be Good is a fine musical.  However, it’s only the music that survives, especially the two major standards that came out of it, “Oh Lady Be Good” and the incredible “Fascinating Rhythm.”  They were beautifully performed here and they are the reason the musical is still with us.  The Ohio Light Opera’s effort to bring this material to appreciative audiences is to be applauded.
Cast:  Nathan Brian (Dick Trevor), Natalie Ballenger (Susie Trevor/Mexican widow/Swiss Miss), Elise Kennedy (Shirley Vernon), Tara Sperry (Josephine Vanderwater), Christopher Nelson (Jack Robinson/Hobo), Michael Lucas (Buck Benson), Andrew Maughan (Sammy Cooper), Ezra Bershatsky (Watty Watkins), Alexander Turpin (Estrada), Mark Snyder (Mr. Parke), Alexander Brickel (Jess), Gregory LaMontagne (Bertie Bassett), Stefan Gordon (Sheriff’s Assistant), Sarah Best (Daisy), Garrett Obrycki (Policeman), other unnamed persons, and Ensemble.  Steven Byess (Conductor), Ted Christopher (Stage Director), Carol Hageman (Choreography), Charlene Gross (Costume Design), C. Murdock Lucas (Scenic Design), Michael Banks (Lighting Design).
Music:  Overture, When You are Tiring of the Life, We’re Here Because, Hang on to Me, A Wonderful Party, End of a String, Fascinating Rhythm, So Am I, Oh Lady Be Good, Finale, Linger in the Lobby, I’d Rather Charleston, The Half of It, Dearie, Blues, Juanita, So Am I (reprise), Carnival Time, Swiss Miss, Oh Lady Be Good (reprise), Finale Ultimo.
Jeff Wanser

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