Orpheus in the Underworld at the Mahalia Jackson Theater
In New Orleans Opera’s first-ever production of Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, Orpheus may have wound up in Hell but, for the audience, it was pure Heaven.
Hector-Jonathan Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy’s libretto satirizes the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus. Their frothy plot features Gods revolting against their boring life on Olympus and heading down to Hades to have some fun. Already down there due to a trick by Pluto, Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife, gets tangled up with Jupiter, the Harvey Weinstein of his realm. Wackiness ensues.
When it debuted in 1858, Crémieux and Halévy’s barbs took aim at the womanizing Emperor Napoleon III and other notables of the day. Jeremy Sams’ witty English translation irons out references that would no longer be comprehensible, but keeps the action lighthearted and gay (and, no, that is not a double entendre, just a li’l ol’ throwback to 1858 verbiage) and a teensy bit naughty (I wasn’t sure what he would rhyme with “luck her.”)
Offenbach’s splendid score tosses out one ear-pleasing aria after another (The Fly Duet for Eurydice and a literally buzzing Jupiter should be a recital staple) leading up to the Infernal Galop (aka the music later used for the can-can). After triumphing with contemporary and tango operas earlier this year (As One and María de Buenos Aires, respectively), Maestro Robert Lyall brought the requisite light touch and assured pacing to this musical bon-bon.
Director Alison Moritz’s inventive staging set the operetta first in a 1950s pink formica’ed kitchen surrounded by a lawn & picket fence and then, aided by Julie Winn’s tres chic costumes, in the rarefied environs of Heaven and Hell. Moritz extended the action out into the auditorium and to the back wall of the stage while imaginatively finding the right degree of humor to accompany Sam’s translation.
With scenery by Steven C. Kemp that slyly exposed the stagecraft behind it and Don Darnutzer’s keen lighting, the production looked like a million and could easily hold its own against larger companies. What a pleasure to see a novel and vital interpretation of an 18th century work. Even the cast clearly appeared to be having fun as they, in essence, got to play in a newly retrofitted sandbox.
Moritz has already helmed a number of modern operas; I’d like to see what she might do with Carmen or Aida or La bohème. My only quibble with Orpheus was that, too often, the supertitles, overseen by Moritz, gave away a punch line before the singers actually got to it. Of course, that might have been beyond her control. In any case, she’s clearly a rising talent to keep an eye on.
Led by Sara Hershkowitz’s crystalline-voiced (and saucy) Eurydice, the entire cast (Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, Casey Candebat, Daniel T. Curran, Jarrett Ott, Angela Mannino, Cree Carrico, Elizabeth de Trejo, Amy Pfrimmer, Kathleen Halm, Alexander Sibley, Juan Luis Williams, Seth Board and the New Orleans Opera Chorus) performed with verve and glorious vocal abilities.
Next up in this 75th anniversary season is George White eld Chadwick’s waggish operetta Tabasco (Jan. 25-28) followed, in March, by Terence Blanchard’s new jazz opera Champion about boxer Emile Griffith, and Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium in June. It may be New Orleans Opera’s Diamond Anniversary but it seems to be entering into a golden era.
The King and I at the Saenger Theatre
Though I had seen the film version many years ago, I had only encountered The King and I on stage twice: once when my junior high school did it the year after I graduated and three years ago in a local production on the North Shore.
Hence, while such amateur efforts can serve as a worthy introduction, the magni cent production that recently played at the Saenger allowed me to appreciate this masterpiece as though I was encountering it for the first time.
Oscar Hammerstein’s book, based upon Margaret Landon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam which was itself inspired by the real life story of schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, balances drama, comedy and two love stories (one of the heart, one of the mind) while exploring gender roles, international relations, and cross cultural influences. Sure, parts of it seem cliched and simplistic (hey, it’s a musical from the 1950s), but well-rounded characterizations, themes that resonate as strongly as ever, and an overarching, deep-rooted humanity overcome this.
Richard Rodgers’ score, seasoned more with Asian-influenced flavor than actual Thai music, provides one classic song after another, from the charming I Whistle a Happy Tune to the powerful My Lord and Master. The commanding orchestral March of Siamese Children and captivating Getting to Know You remain timeless. You could hardly blame people for singing along in their seats.
Hammerstein’s lyrics epitomize the form, at one point rhyming “prig of me” with “bigamy,” yet they also convey deep emotion with guileless simplicity (Something Wonderful, I Have Dreamed).
Bartlett Sher’s Tony Award-winning production, which began life at Lincoln Center, combined sumptuous costumes (Catherine Zuber), a basic but evocative set (Michael Yeargan), and gorgeous lighting (Donald Holder bringing out moody red & orange skies) to deliver a visually stunning work. His own unfussy direction could hardly be improved upon.
The choreography by Christopher Gattelli, based on Jerome Robbins’ original, beautifully fused Thai and Western styles; his superb second act ballet The Small House of Uncle Thomas marvelously reflects how a young, 19th century Asian princess might interpret the Harriet Beecher Stowe book.
With her soaring soprano, British actress Laura Michelle Kelly makes Anna tough but sweet, starchy but with hints of sassiness that peek through her reserve. Jose Llana’s King proves a worthy foil to Anna, a strong leader who wants her help to bring his country into modern times but resists letting go of traditions, even antiquated ones. If Llana did not completely erase memories of Yul Brynner, he fully embodied the roles contradictions. A few less modern mannerisms (that elicited easy laughs) & a pinch more bone-deep regalness, and he’d be perfect.
Q Lim and Kavin Panmeechao infused the doomed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha with youthful passion tempered by justi able fear; Lim’s operatic voice was particularly impressive. Joan Almedilla provided proper noble bearing as Lady Thiang, the King’s Number One Wife, imbuing her signature song, Something Wonderful, with subtle strength.
With its endearing children and outstanding dancers, this King and I will be remembered as one of the best productions to grace the Saenger. Having savored this traditional approach, I would now hope to see an adventurous director bring a new interpretation to the musical. Perhaps reset in North Korea with a Kim Jong-un stand-in as the King? In my dreams…
Coming next to the Saenger will be Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (Dec. 19-24), though it’s kinda hard to think about Xmas when, as I type this, it’s 74 degrees outside!
Next up for Southern Rep is Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, running November 29-December 23 at Loyola University’s Marquette Theatre. Miss Bennet reunites the characters of Pride and Prejudice, putting bookish middle sister Mary Bennet front-and-center in this holiday-themed play.
Aimée Hayes and Jeffrey Gunshol direct a cast that includes James Bartelle (4000 Miles), Monica Harris (Titus Andronicus), Ian Hoch (Caligula), and Emily Russell (Constellations).
TWTC presents the New Orleans premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Not About Nightingales. Based on a true story, Williams gives an account of a prison hunger strike with deadly consequences. Written as a class assignment to pull a story from the newspaper headlines, and posthumously discovered & mounted for the first time in the late 1990s, Nightingales is one of Williams’ first plays concerned with social justice.
Directed by Augustin Correro and featuring Zeb Hollins III, Sean Richmond, Nicole Himel, and Joseph Furnari, Nightingales runs December 1-16 at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center (1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.).
YouTube comic sensation Randy Rainbow makes his New Orleans debut December 1 & 2 at Café Istanbul (2372 St. Claude Ave.). If you haven’t seen his Internet political spoofs and song parodies, where have you been? Really, where have you been since they’ve racked up over a hundred million views. This guy is funny, really funny and we need him today. Like oxygen and water. I’m sure he’ll get you in the holiday spirit.
Le Petit had to reschedule Ed Asner’s one man show due to the hurricane that wasn’t, but A Man and His Prostate is now heading to 616 Saint Peter Street on December 8 & 9. Sure, the title is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, but who wouldn’t want to hear Lou Grant talk about his down-belows?!
Last year’s Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra Holiday Spectacular with The 610 Stompers was pretty fabulous. Whether doing a June Taylor-esque routine to the Charleston or proving they’re our own hairy-chested Rockettes as the Babes in Toyland soldiers, they were all ineffably precious, an “Only in NOLA” phenomenon.
If you need a laugh, and who doesn’t these days, don’t miss them on either December 9 or 10 at the Orpheum Theater (129 Roosevelt Way). After all, who needs another Nutcracker?
I first met Rip Naquin over 20 years ago when he was on the Board of Directors of the Gay & Lesbian Community Center and I was its art gallery director. He was bigger than life, a God of the Quarter who seemed to know everybody and everything going on in this section of the Big Easy.
More importantly, he was among the most dedicated members of the Board, attending, with Marsha, virtually every opening we had and acquiring a work of art at nearly every one of them. His support meant a lot to me and to the Center.
I first pitched an idea for an article to Rip when I was going to Sydney’s Mardi Gras in 1996. He immediately said “Yes” which began my writing for Ambush, first doing travel and interview features and then, in 2002, becoming this magazine’s theater critic.
Rip was not a man of the theater and I don’t think he ever “got” me, but when I and Patrick Shannon, my co-critic from 2002-2010, approached him about starting the Ambie Awards that would recognize local productions, he unhesitatingly agreed and gave us tremendous support. Despite repeated invitations, he and Marsha were able to attend as presenters only once (as the Awards were always on a Monday night when they were usually getting ready to deliver the paper the next day), but afterwards he did come to realize how much fun theater folk can be.
In two decades of his editing my articles, Rip deleted only one word in one of them. He was steadfast, however, in allowing me to critique shows as I saw fit, even when I didn’t care for a production that had advertised with us. I will always respect and remember him for that.
And, in addition to all the fantabulous King Cake Queen coronation soirees and balcony bead tosses, I will always remember him for the opportunity he gave me to cover theater, not only in New Orleans, but around the world.