The Cousin from Nowhere

By Eduard Künneke

Silly-but-tuneful ‘Cousin’ gets a rare staging by Chicago Folks Operetta

John von Rhein- Chicago Tribune July 2016

In his definitive history of operetta, the late author Richard Traubner dismissed the plot of “The Cousin from Nowhere” as “numbingly dumb.” He had a point. Even by the standards of 1920s operetta, German composer Eduard Kunneke’s romantic confection, about a naive young girl, her childhood sweetheart, two mysterious strangers and various mistaken identities, is piffle.

Ah, but try and resist Kunneke’s charming and tuneful score, which draws on jazz, ragtime, foxtrots, tangos and other bits of popular musical Americana of the period.

No wonder “The Cousin from Nowhere” (“Der Vetter aus Dingsda,” to revert to its original title) was an overnight sensation at its 1921 premiere and soon swept the Continent and America. Musically it stands as a prime example of the Berlin operetta style, sexier and lighter of touch than the gilded Viennese model. The show remains popular in German-speaking countries, but productions in the U.S. have been rare.

That’s reason enough to check out the new production by Chicago Folks Operetta in the intimate theater at Chicago’s Stage 773. It’s good summer-weight entertainment. Just don’t go expecting “The Merry Widow” or “Die Fledermaus.”

That the show even made it past rehearsals is something of a fluke. Just days before the scheduled opening, tenor Gerald Frantzen, the company’s artistic director and one of the lead performers, fell off the set and suffered a concussion and multiple fractures. Opening night was pushed back a week to allow his replacement to learn his part, and alterations were made in the set design and blocking.

Kunneke was a composition pupil of Max Bruch and an orchestral musician and theater conductor of repute. His catalog includes 23 operettas and 34 film scores. The score he wrote for “Cousin from Nowhere” serves up songs and ensembles that are eminently singable, done up here in a breezy translation by Frantzen and Hersh Glagov. Conductor Anthony Barrese secures crisp and lively playing from the 22-piece orchestra in this, the Folks Operetta’s second production of the Kunneke work in the past four seasons.

The flimsy plot concerns Julia, a young heiress and ward of two guardians, Uncle Josse and Aunt Wimpel, who conspire to marry her off to their heirs, thus keeping her money in the family. But Julia has pledged her heart to her absent cousin Roderich, whom she hasn’t seen in seven years. When an amorous stranger arrives out of the night, then a second stranger, operetta confusion cannot be far away. Rest assured that the strangers are unmasked, romantic illusions shattered and the right couples paired off.

Unfortunately, director Elizabeth Margolius’ decision to modernize the show by using an abstract, white-on-white, minimalist set (designed by Kurtis Boetcher) and dressing the performers in contemporary street clothes loses more than it gains. You don’t get around the problems posed by a silly period piece by going “hip” — you only make it feel sillier.

An earnest if uneven cast plays the comedy broadly and sings with more pizazz than polish.

The most capable performer is tenor Nicholas Pulikowski as the mysterious “Stranger 1” — eventually revealed to be August Kuhbrot, Uncle Josse’s itinerant nephew — who brings dramatic presence to a blurry character and vocal suavity to the show’s most famous number, “I Am Just a Poor Wandering Man.”

Heather Youngquist may not be ideal casting as the ingenue Julia, and the prominent vibrato in her light soprano detracts from her duets with the second soprano, Genevieve Thiers, as the heroine’s wisecracking friend Hanna. At least Youngquist gives a lovely accounting of her big number, “Moon Shining Bright.”

Damon Cole draws a couple of honest laughs as the clumsy suitor Egon von Wildenhagen, who at one point is called on to sing while jumping rope. Trent Oldham, Frantzen’s replacement, gives a game accounting of the second stranger, the long-lost Roderich, who turns out to be more of a cad than a faithful lover. James Judd (Uncle Josse) and Rose Guccione (Aunt Wimpel) evidently were encouraged to shout their lines as if that would make them funnier. Roy Belzer is the supercilious servant Hans. Todd Rhoades’ choreography animates the sometimes dull stretches of dialogue between the rousing musical numbers.

John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.