Ball at the Savoy

Folks Operetta has a ‘Ball’ with musical rarity

OPERETTA REVIEW: ‘Ball at the Savoy’ at 773 Theatre ★★★

by John von Rhein- Chicago Tribune

July 20, 2014

Ravinia music director James Conlon’s “Breaking the Silence” crusade to rescue musical works by Jewish composers suppressed by the Nazis and forgotten in the postwar era has found its light-opera counterpart at Chicago Folks Operetta.The troupe has restored another stage work long lost to the mists of time, a once wildly successful jazz operetta from 1932 Berlin, Paul Abraham’s “Ball at the Savoy” (or “Ball im Savoy,” to revert to the original German title).

Sporting a snappy production, a 20-piece orchestra and a mildly risque new English translation by Hersh Glagov and artistic director Gerald Frantzen, a perky ensemble of singers and dancers presented the belated American premiere Friday night at Stage 773 on West Belmont Avenue. “Ball at the Savoy” recycles the plot of Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus,” shifting the action to a grand society ball in Nice on the French Riviera. Here we have a newlywed wife, Madeleine, who turns the tables on her husband, Marquis Aristide de Faublas, whom she believes is fooling around with an old flame, by engaging in an extramarital fling of her own.
There is a subplot involving the courtship of a much-married Turkish attache, Mustapha Bey, with Madeleine’s flirtatious American cousin, a dance-hall hoofer named Daisy Parker. Madeleine denounces her husband’s supposed betrayal, but the chastened spouse and his wife finally reconcile in the final minutes of the show.The operetta helped make Abraham, a Hungarian Jew once considered the heir-apparent of Franz Lehar, the biggest star of Weimar Germany. But while his shows enjoyed a modicum of success throughout Europe, they did not catch on with American audiences, who much preferred operettas by their own composers.
By 1933, the rise of Adolf Hitler had driven Abraham’s works off German stages and forced the composer into exile, a fate he shared with so many other Jewish musicians and artists. He fled to Vienna, Budapest, Paris and Cuba before settling in New York, where he suffered a mental breakdown. In 1945, he was found standing in the middle of a Manhattan thoroughfare, conducting an imaginary orchestra. He died in a mental institution in Hamburg, Germany, in 1960.
Historians tend to be dismissive of Abraham’s jazz-infused operettas, the New Grove Dictionary accusing him of “pandering openly to the popular musical idioms of the time,” while author Richard Traubner writes of “an inflated reputation exceeding his talent, as far as great operettas were concerned.” The amiably romantic fluff that is “Ball at the Savoy” scarcely merits such lofty condemnation. Abraham’s infectiously catchy tunes and jazzy syncopations cleverly absorb the genres that rocked Weimar-era Berlin and so raised Hitler’s hackles. Lehar-and- Kalman-style schmaltz is never far away and there’s even a sly steal from Adele’s laughing song in “Fledermaus.”
Plenty of rousing dance numbers keep the show moving and are the highlights of Kristen Barrett’s production. Not the least of its many charms, in fact, is Todd Rhoades’ choreography, danced with oodles of razzmatazz by the Folks Operetta’s singing actors and dancers.
They all appear to be having a ball, as does the spirited (if thin-sounding in the string department) orchestra under music director Anthony Barrese, which is tucked away at the back of Adam Veness’ sleek, Art Deco-style unit set. With some 35 minutes cut from the score, and two numbers added from the 1935-26 German film version of “Ball im Savoy,” the show clocks in at nearly three hours, with one intermission. Most of the operetta’s hit numbers are assigned to the comic couple, Mustapha and Daisy, roles played to the singing-and-dancing hilt by Ryan Trent Oldham and Cynthia Fortune Gruel, both talented and vivacious performers. The romantic chemistry between their characters is palpable from the start, and their footwork is terrific, although Gruel’s vocal delivery sounded oddly reticent early in the evening at Friday’s opening.
Frantzen sings robustly and strikes handsome leading-man poses as the misunderstood marquis (“A Faublas never makes a faux pas,” quoth he). Alison Kelly, the company’s general director and frequent leading lady, makes the most of Madeleine’s vulnerability, hurt and proto-feminist sensibility. She also cuts an attractive figure and gets to deliver some of the show’s most winning songs, including the melting “Toujours l’amour.”
An affinity for musical and dramatic style also marked the fine supporting performances of Bridget Skaggs as the “other woman,” a Russian-accented Argentinian dancer improbably named Tangolita; and Matt Dyson as the callow junior lawyer Celestin, whom Madeleine enlists as her paramour of the evening. Some fluffed lines and ill-timed punchlines no doubt will be corrected as the show settles in.
Completing a happy picture are Julian Pike’s lighting and Kate Kamphausen’s costumes, nicely in synch with the period look and feel.