Sunday, November 9, 2014

Retrospective: Humboldt Light Opera

Any review of North Coast musicals begins and ends with Humboldt Light Opera Company productions. It’s their only business, after all. They nurture singers and help make them actors, in formal classes (Executive Director Carol Ryder has until recently taught at both HSU and CR) and especially within the company. (There's more about her and the history of the company in this post on HLOC's 40th anniversary show.)  In general I've enjoyed and admired Ryder's directing, and Jayson Mohatt's sets, as well as the music in their productions.

 Typically HLOC has done a small musical or performance of some kind in the fall or winter, but one big musical a year, in summer. They are also very good at promoting their shows in the community—and they put on a great outdoor spreads after opening night performances.

 The productions that stand out in memory without any prompting are Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2011), Shrek (2013), and Titanic (2007). Carol Ryder directed them all. I also remember Jean Bazemore’s direction of Carol, Bill and Fiona Ryder in Light on the Piazza (with a thrilling vocal performance by James Gadd) in 2009, and Ryder’s vibrant The Pirates of Penzance the next year.

 I often include puns and jokes in reviews, just to keep myself entertained through those dour hours of writing, regardless of whether anyone else notices. This was never more obvious than in my Pirates review (although I have no evidence anyone noticed this either) when I copied the cadence of the most famous Gilbert & Sullivan song in the show:

 “HLOC is a community theatre organization, but I doubt if you could find a professional theatre version of The Pirates of Penzance with as perfect a production and as winning a cast. They highlight all the humor, eternal and historical, with skillful song and dance, romantic and euphorical. They ply us with a plot that is at best fantastical, with certitude and grace, droll and enthusiastical. With audience in tow, they sail to this attainment: more ecstatic than dramatic, this is the very model of a modern entertainment.” 

My review of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is here, elsewhere on this blog. I got a kick out of spotting something that almost no one else did—the “quote” of Groucho’s entrance in Duck Soup in the heroine’s entrance.

Here’s my review of Titanic.  I've added italic bold to part of one sentence that remains key for me in any show.

   Manic About Titanic (2007) 

 When the basic story is so familiar, and the narrative trajectory so extravagantly simple (big unsinkable ship sinks on maiden voyage), it all depends on how it’s done. The Humboldt Light Opera does the musical Titanic very, very well.

 The production excels in every aspect, to create a stylish, polished, harmonized and entertaining whole with moments of unexpected emotion. It’s a treat to be able to appreciate the skillful and artful execution of the show’s many elements, but it’s the confidence that the production creates that allows you to relax into the illusion and feel the emotion.

And it doesn’t depend on flashy, overwhelming technical achievements. You aren’t going to see a giant ship sinking. Though there’s a single, small tilting room in the second act, the most dramatic special effect is the well-timed skittering of a single tea cart.

 Yet the sets and lighting (designed by Jayson Mohatt and Justin Takata) are sumptuous in their way, as well as elegant and eloquent, etching the scenes into memory. Kevin Sharkey’s costumes are ravishing. Director Carol McWhorter Ryder focuses on sets of characters, then fills the large Van Duzer stage with movement (and Sarah Carlton’s choreography.)

 The singing (as is often the case in an HLOC production) is superior. Above all, there is the orchestra: what a delight to have a full orchestra for a musical, and this one, under the direction of Justin Sousa, impeccably plays an evocative score.

 The Titanic, the largest and most lavish passenger ship of its time, steamed out of England on its first and last voyage in April 1912. There were three classes of service for passengers: from First Class for the wealthy and renowned, such as John Jacob Astor and his young wife, to Third Class for poor immigrants bound for America.

 One of the better moves in the musical’s script (by Peter Stone) is to focus early on a couple in Second Class—a middle class, Midwestern businessman (Edgar Beane, played by Gene Lodes) and his star-struck wife (Alice, played by Elisabeth Harrington). Since Alice is so curious about the celebrities in First Class she provides easy exposition, but with an endearing comic performance and a wonderful voice, Elisabeth Harrington goes beyond this simple expediency to establish the Beanes as the audience’s representatives, as well as a couple whose fate will matter.

 We soon see the glamour of First Class for ourselves in a dinner scene that literally glitters with sequined gowns and jewels, as characters are deftly introduced. Then another large ensemble scene in Third Class that is unexpectedly affecting. The Irish émigrés could be living clichés, (the burly young fisherman, played by Tristin Roberts, the three young ladies named Kate, played by Laura Hathaway, Krissy Dodge and Essie Bertain) but first with a trio sung by the Kates, and then in a powerful ensemble, they generate real emotion. Perhaps it evokes images of immigrant ancestors (though my grandparents and mother came over from Italy on ships much less majestic than this, where there were a handful in First Class, and thousands in steerage.) But it’s the actors and their singing that really put it over, particularly the radiant Laura Hathaway.

The script probably tries to do too much—there are so many themes and so many characters (based on real passengers) that little gets developed even cursorily. Phil Zastrow as the ship’s owner (and villain of the piece), Kevin Sharkey as its designer and Bill Ryder as the Captain all perform their fairly thankless roles well, but it’s the “minor” characters who stand out: Cailan Halliday as the quartermaster, for instance, and Kevin Richards as the chief coal stoker, and particularly Jordan Matteoli as Radioman Harold Bride. Matteloli seems born to play young and usually innocent characters in musicals set between 1910 and 1950. He gets an especially poignant song near the end.

 Though there are slack stretches and foreshortened stories, the emotion built into the situation—the lives lost, the survivors, how everyone behaved—comes through, thanks to the production and these characters.

 I confess I couldn’t imagine song lyrics about the sinking of the Titanic. (The best I could come up with were: MRS. ASTOR: The ship is sinking! MR. ASTOR: Have you been drinking? It’s unthinkable! The ship’s unsinkable! CAPTAIN: Mr. Astor! It’s a disaster!) Not to mention finding a rhyme for “iceberg.”

 But this musical is more in the operetta style, with most of the dialogue sung rather than spoken. Though serviceable and even witty in context, with few exceptions neither lyrics nor songs (both by Maury Yeston) are especially memorable. Perhaps that’s partly why this Tony Award-winning Broadway hit of a decade ago is so little known. But for the length of the show, it hardly matters.

 And there are other oddities about the script, such as the Captain about to go down with the ship suddenly reflecting that in 43 years at sea, he’s never seen an accident. It sounds like an insert demanded by the cruise ship industry. But as a whole, the excellence of the Humboldt Light Opera production overwhelms these weaknesses. Maybe the ship sank, but this Titanic is buoyant.

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