It’s not that we’re crazy about light opera, operettas or musicals. In the Detroit area, we are starved for meaningful entertainment and will jump at any opportunity to sit down for two hours to watch a live show in the form of Becket’s plays (Abreact Theater, reviewed in SyrPer) or some minor musicals whose only attraction is in their obscurity. Enter “Madame Sherry” as performed by the Comic Opera Guild at the Vitosha Haus Concert hall in Ann Arbor. We had a fine time.
If the composer’s name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry about your level of refinement. He is one, Karl Hoschna, a Bohemian-born American musician who, according to his own narrative almost went insane because of the sound of the oboe, the self-same instrument upon which he trained as a little boy. He gravitated to the light opera genre which was very popular on both sides of the Atlantic and eventually collaborated with librettist, Otto Harbach, in the production of “MADAME SHERRY”, a French operetta-farce originally produced by M. Ordonneau and Hugo Felix in 1910. We’re definitely descending into obscurantism now.
Herr Hoschna in this early picture which depicts a typical turn-of-the-century intellectual, pince nez and all. He abandoned the oboe because it was driving him mad. Doesn’t that sound oh so German? His death at 34 had people speculating that he was tied down and forced to listen to an oboe.
We went as a group with no great expectations and precious little knowledge about the musical. My wife, Aida, accompanied me along with Tony the Greek, Laura Nightingale, his nurse wife, Mark the Brit and John Kubrick (no relation to the director other than the sobriquet I gave him because of our shared adoration for Stanley Kubrick). We found the Vitosha Concert Hall with great ease, seeing Ann Arbor is my home town and the University of Michigan, my alma mater for ten years, and parked my GMC bus on Berkshire Street athwart the side entrance to the Bavarian-looking Bed-and-Breakfast Inn which houses the theater. (Some of my friends have threatened me with death if I keep using words like “vouchsafe”, “athwart” or “eftsoons”! I ignore their curses and cruelly persist)
It’s not the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Quite charming though, nestled on Washtenaw’s “Fraternity Row” amid a veritable riot of verdure which included a quince tree which my Syrian wife and I denuded (locust-like) with reckless abandon.
Of interest to some readers is the fact that the librettist, Otto Abels Harbach, of Danish origin, wrote the words for the American pop classic: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” made very famous by the Platters. I’m sure Greg T. will appreciate this bit of musical trivia. But it just shows you that even a minor operetta like this can have a solid pedigree.
This is Otto Harbach. Can anyone believe the words to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” were written by him?
Madame Sherry belongs to that genre of musical which can be classified by itself as a leitmotiv. The plot is not meant to be deep; more of a I Love Lucy or Three’s Company sort of thing; never attaining the level of the shallowest Monty Python skit, Fawlty Towers, for example. It is a farce! A story built around an improbable series of plots which merge together to create a knotty situation which the main characters must unravel in order to please the audience’s lust for music, humor and optimistic resolution. A farce which ends in misery, is sometimes a black comedy.
The operetta was first published by Hoschna and Harbach after Ordonneau and Felix exhibited it in Paris. The Hoschna version opened in London in 1910 but failed miserably. But it was revivified in the 1940’s well after Hoschna’s death and contained two new songs by other composers and lyricists (The Dublin Rag by Schwartz/Atteridge and Put Your Arms Around Me Honey, by Von Tilzer/McCree) It was a hit and ran for 231 performances. It then fell into obscurity, a condition which evidently attracted the attention of the Comic Opera Guild. I am assuming it was resurrected in the 1940’s only because I am certain the expression “In like Flynn” was used in Act 2. That expression was coined after the Tasmanian-born English actor, Errol Flynn, beat a statutory rape charge in November of 1942. I would doubt the screenplay could have contained this all-American phrase prior to that time.
The story is downright simpleminded. Edward Sherry is the confirmed bachelor-owner of a dance school in Paris which is partly financed by his wealthy uncle and amateur archaeologist,Theophilus, who has never seen the school. Edward keeps up the pretense that not only does he run a sophisticated dancing academy, but, crucially, that he’s married to Eusabia and has two children (Scholastica and Spaminondas). The Greek names hint at the uncle’s erudition and knowledge of classical literature. Uncle Theophilus continues to send monthly checks to Edward on the basis of the lie we just described. The assumption is that Theophilus, who is searching for the two arms of the Venus De Milo, would never deign to set foot in the school. The reader is now asked to guess what happens next!
The reason for the uncle’s appearance is his niece’s, Yvonne’s, departure from a convent in France where she received her education in literature and spinsterhood. She aims to visit her cousin and so, Theophilus wants to kill two birds with one stone: see his niece and nephew and the Edward’s children. A catastrophe is about to take place.
The French are always depicted in light comedies as basking in infidelity – and true to that tradition – this story is filled with such suggestions. You see, in order for Edward to snooker his uncle into believing that he is married with children, he has to “borrow” janitor Phillipe’s wife Catherine, an Irish woman with a sordid past. Phillipe, a French-Canadian, is ever-conscious of his wife’s predilections and hectors her constantly with his jealousies. On the other side is the dance instructor, LuLu who is in love with Leonardo, the noble son of the Venezuelan ambassador who, himself, is hounded by the stereotypically hot, fiery-tempered, ex-fiancee Latina, Pepita. Pepita brandishes a knife in almost every scene to prove her Hispanic tactlessness and sense of scorn.
To add even more oil to the fire, Yvonne develops a crush on Edward whom she believes is married to Catherine. They’re dalliances are meant to titillate the audience with her falling in love with a married man.
He eventually, while on his uncle’s yacht, tells her that he doesn’t care about his wife and children. Her consternation is eventually dispelled by his explanation that she was not his wife and the children were impostors.
When Theophilus finds out about the charade and the jig is way up, Edward and Lulu concoct a way to embarrass him into continuing to send the monthly checks. They have Catherine develop a romance with him on the deck of his yacht which causes him to admit that a real pair of arms is better than looking for two marble ones. But, Catherine is married to Phillipe; another hint at infidelity. He suddenly decides that he’s just a mortal man anyways with mortal foibles and weaknesses. He continues to finance the school and everyone lives, kind of, happily ever after, except for ritually incandescent Pepita whose fate is a return to her homeland “in a crate”.
Almost all light operas are dreadful stories.
Theophilus is played by James Wessel Walker, an elderly looking man who bears an incredible resemblance to Commander Schweppes. He dresses like the Commander, ascot, navy blue blazer and captain’s white cap. After all, he is a wealthy man sailing on his own yacht. In other ways, he reminds me of the ever-friendly retired wino, a boulevardier, who is loved by the dames because of his contented, nonthreatening smile. As a rich uncle, Mr. Walker is convincing.
“Curiously refreshing!” That’s what the actor who played Theophilus looked like. This is, of course, Commander Schweppes hoisting a gin and tonic.
The operetta is in three acts. The first takes place at the dancing school. The second at port awaiting a voyage for all the characters as guests of uncle Theophilus. The third takes place on the yacht where we get to hear the finale. The yacht and the voyage indicate a non-Parisian locale. If anything, by the 1940’s, the re-written operetta could have taken place in New York or LeHavre without anyone noticing.
Although the farce was pure fluff, the actors and singers were not. I really enjoyed Lulu’s voice and elocution as delivered by Emily Bennett. She has the full figure of a coloratura, a jiggly-wiggly gelatinous voluptuousness ideally suited for tart Victorian period pieces accompanied by a bright, Folies Bergere smile that lights up the theater. Opposite Ms. Bennett is Edward Sherry played by Thomas Petiet who would make a pretty good substitute for Clifton Webb, what with a high part near the middle of the scalp, stuffy mien accompanied by some of the high-brow, eye-brow raising “befuddlements” typical of a repressed society. The female singers were all very good and trained in opera. Natalie Emptage (Yvonne), Sarah Briggs (Catherine) and Eva-Maressa Rice (Pepita) all belted out their songs with a clarity that made listening a pleasure. Pepita’s lyrics though have to be absorbed with the Latin accent she affected, and so, sometimes, it was hard to understand the words she was enunciating. No great shakes.
The men did not seem to be all that important when it came to singing. Phillipe’s (played by Fred Estabrook) job was to appear French and angry. He did the job. Leonardo, played by Gyorgy Barabas from Hungary (Now, that’s a name!!) was fine as the love interest for Lulu. The dance students looked a bit frumpy with those wings stuck to their backs – wings which most resembled those of common house flies.
There is a famous song in this somewhat unknown operetta: “Every Little Movement“. I knew the song since childhood but couldn’t place it until I heard it. I have provided Doris Day’s version for those whose memories have been eroded by time and gin.
In like the experience of sitting for this light opera and recommend it. I took pictures but can’t extricate them from my camera for use on SyrPer. I am desolate. Ziad
READINGS FROM AROUND THE WORLD:
Look Ma, no fingers. Will the lying ever stop?
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MORE MURDERS FROM THE TERRORISTS. CAN ANYONE BELIEVE THIS DOG, GEORGE SABRA, A COMMUNIST AND A KNOWN DRUG USER? NOW THEY’RE MURDERING PRIESTS.
This one is from Paul. Great overview of the situation in Syria. But be careful, my information is that the negotiations with Captain Al-Zamil are on-going and no final decision has been made about how to treat with these deserters. I’ve mentioned this before. But otherwise, thank you Paul for sending me this quality piece: