Chicago Tribune Review by Howard Reich
Folks Operetta – previously known as Chicago Folks Operetta — launched its 2018 season over the weekend with an expanded mission and an ingenious revival.
Writing in the program notes to its production of Emmerich Kalman’s “The Csardas Princess,” artistic director Gerald Frantzen observed: “Over the past 13 years, it was impossible to ignore that almost all of the operettas we had translated and reconstructed were created by Jewish composers or librettists.”
More specifically, most of these works were penned by Jews persecuted or murdered during the Holocaust.
“With our history of restoring these works,” added Frantzen, “it was only natural that we turn our attention to operas by Jewish composers of his period.”
Thus was born Folks Operetta’s Reclaimed Voices series, with “The Csardas Princess” as the first installment. Penned in 1915 with librettists Leo Stein and Bela Jenbach, “The Csardas Princess” at first glance might seem like a trifle in which various combinations of mismatched lovers eventually stumble their way to the right pairings (or something close to that). But the Hungarian composer’s score, with its endless ribbons of exquisitely crafted melody and oft-dark shades of Eastern European harmony, heighten the meaning and import of “The Csardas Princess.”
Add to this the harsh class conflicts that underlie the romantic shenanigans, plus the knowledge that Kalman eventually had to flee Europe to escape the Nazis, and you have a seemingly frothy work with far deeper resonances.
Folks Operetta’s production at Stage 773 kept the proceedings light but not frivolous, thanks to ingenious choreography in a constricted space, remarkably fine ensemble singing and several deftly turned comic performances. Bass-baritone William Roberts emerged as the comedic centerpiece of the production as Boni, whose amorous attentions prove quite malleable; soprano Katherine Petersen sounded radiant as Sylva, the love interest of various suitors; and lyric mezzo-soprano Emma Sorenson displayed a striking voice and whimsical spirit as the giddy Stasi.
Sung in English, the libretto has been peppered with modern-day bits of social commentary that reflect the spirit of the genre, an observation echoed by the composer’s daughter, Yvonne Kalman, who spoke with me at Sunday’s matinee.
Though the antics occasionally teetered dangerously close to camp, and though Mark Taylor deftly conducted an instrumental ensemble that sometimes proved too loud for vocal solos (no surprise, for the band was sequestered in a space behind the stage), these were minor issues.
More important, Folks Operetta has embarked on an auspicious new beginning.
WTTW Review by Hedy Weiss
In ‘The Csardas Princess,’ Cabaret Singer Embroiled In Love, Marriage and Social Chaos, Operetta-Style
To American audiences, grand opera can sometimes seem a bit ludicrous, yet it remains widely accepted – appreciated for the splendor of the music and the extraordinary vocal prowess involved. At the other end of the spectrum are Broadway musicals, which are far more accessible, and have become deeply ingrained in our DNA over the course of nearly a century.
Operettas, which flourished largely during the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (with Gilbert and Sullivan the principal British practitioners of the form, and Offenbach the French master), are often seen as the stylistic link between opera and the Broadway musical. Yet in many ways, they are the most difficult form to bring to life in a fully convincing and contemporary way – rooted, as they are, in social and theatrical conventions that can seem beyond quaint.
That makes the mission of the Chicago-based Folks Operetta company – which has produced 17 of such largely forgotten works during its 13-year history – all the more valuable, as well as challenging to artists and audiences alike. And not surprisingly, it is one of the few companies in this country that regularly mounts such work.
During the course of his career translating and staging operettas, Gerald Frantzen, the company’s artistic director, realized that many of these works were created by Jewish composers and/or lyricists who in one way or another had been silenced or exiled as a result of Hitler’s Third Reich. And in response he has initiated the “Reclaimed Voices” series which is designed to bring such work back to life.
The first operetta to be produced in the series is “The Csardas Princess,” penned in 1915 by the Hungarian-Jewish composer Emmerich Kalman, with a German libretto by Leo Stein and Bela Jenbach that has been translated into English by Hersh Glagov and Frantzen. Presented at Stage 773 (where, in an adjacent theater, the radically different hit musical “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story” is enjoying a return engagement), what is most impressive about the production is the exceptional beauty of the voices in the show’s large cast, and the performers’ comic swagger in a style that could easily be alien to them.
A romantic comedy laced with all the prejudices of class consciousness and snobbery of the pre-World War I era, “The Csardas Princess” (the most successful of Kalman’s many works, which takes its name from the traditional Hungarian folk dance) is about Sylva Varescu (Katherine Petersen, a sparking dark-eyed soprano with a face as expressive as her lush soprano), a small town factory worker with a captivating voice who is determined to become a cabaret star in Berlin.
Sylva has captured the heart of Edwin Weylerheim (Jonathan Zeng, a rich-voiced tenor), son of the wealthy factory owner. But not only is she determined to go off and forge her career, but Edwin’s snobby father, Leo (a stylish turn by Robert Morrissey), is hell-bent on bringing his son home to Vienna so that he can marry his childhood sweetheart and fiancé, Stasi (Emma Sorenson, a tall, lithesome beauty with a vivid mezzo-soprano voice) who is of a more suitable social class.
In the meantime, an older ladies’ man, Boni (bass-baritone William Roberts, who lights up the stage with his uncanny grasp of the operetta’s comic style), is more than willing to accompany Sylva to Berlin and help make her into the star who will become known as The Csardas Princess. Before this happens, however, Edwin impulsively vows to marry Sylva in a shotgun wedding ceremony.
And that is just the beginning of this heavily plotted piece that spins on and on and incorporates countless reflections on the nature of love, marriage, flirtation, female autonomy, social status and celebrity.
Frantzen has not yet fully figured out how to make these operettas flow in a more modern, organic way while at the same time suggesting their period-defining qualities. Choreographer Emily Kleeman’s dance sequences are awash in the csardas and the waltz. And Patti Roeder’s vast array of colorful costumes are perfection, from turban-style headscarves to period-perfect shoes.
The formidable 19-piece orchestra led by Mark A. Taylor is superb, and if a size that is a major rarity for even Broadway productions these days. This company’s grand ambitions cannot be denied.
Future plans for Folks Operetta include a multimedia concert dubbed “Forbidden Opera,” that will tell the stories of such prominent Jewish composers as Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill and Franz Schreker. It also has launched the Korngold Initiative, a fundraising project designed to underwrite a production of the American premiere of “Die Kathrin,” the last opera by the exile who became one of Hollywood’s greatest film composers.
The Folks Operetta production of “The Csardas Princess” runs through July 22 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. For tickets ($40) visit www.FolksOperetta.org. Running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes.
In Act I though, which is staged in the courtyard outside the Weylersheim factory, the waltz beats are upstaged, at least for this writer, by rhythms and clarinet sirens that sound like Emmerich Kálmán used a heavy Klezmer spicing as he cooked his score. One might think of it as a bread crumb trail tracing musical theater and this operetta in specific back to Yiddish Theater traditions.
It may come as a surprise to read in the program notes that Emmerich Kálmán tried his hand at Hollywood film scores but never could make it work. This easy-to-digest music sure sounds like a Hollywood fit! If anything, the colorful costumes and wigs might trigger a feeling similar to the nagging dissonance lovers of oldie movies experience when they see such films colorized.
If there is one cast member that especially feels like he stepped right out of such a celluloid treasure it is, for this writer, charmer bass baritone William Roberts as Boni. He plays a rake who rivets the audience with song, dance, spot on comic timing, and a very expressive raised eyebrow here and there. Casting Roberts in this role seems as perfect as can be, while other casting choices and voice talents- at least early in the run—seemed a bit more uneven. You too may find yourself longing to hear soprano Katherine Peterson and mezzo Soprano Emma Sorensen get to sing again, accompanying the similarly strong performance by the entire 21 member orchestra. Their voices and the orchestra’s performances are as soothing as the score. Similarly, dance enthusiasts might find themselves eagerly awaiting the standout and lithe moves by triple threats Nick Cuellar and Joshua Hills, whose stage presence belies the relatively minor roles that they play.
One heads up might be in order for those who usually find anachronistic updates to librettos and book unnerving. Hersh Glagov and Gerald Frantzen have translated an earlier German version of this operetta by Leo Stein and Bela Jenbech, with insertion of modern references used also a way to update reference points and cut the story down a bit to size. Indeed, it does feel a bit long by curtain close. You too might get a bit of whiplash when the lyrics floating to you include references to ISIS. Relax— by the time it gets to noting Stormy Daniels you’ll find yourself giving it all a good belly laugh.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Cast: Robert Morrissey, Rosalind Hurwitz, Jonathan Zeng, Emma Sorenson, William Roberts, Bill Chamberlain, Athena Kopulos, Alexandra Kassouf, Katherine Peterson, Laura Martino, Claire Lillig, Michael Rawls, Dennis Kalup, Nick Cuellar and Omar Mulero.
Production team: Mark Taylor, conductor; Gerald Frantzen, director; Eric Luchen, set designer; Erik Barry, lighting director; Patti Roeder, costumer designer