Spirited revival of ‘Arizona Lady’ packs tunes as well as six-guns

July 21, 2010|By John von RheinClassical music critic

Welcome to the Sunshine Ranch, where the cowpokes are cowpokes, the women are headstrong and horse thieves get thrown in the hoosegow before the all-singing, all-dancing ensemble gathers to reprise the big musical number.

This is the happy-go-lucky Wild West – reminiscent of those old singing-cowboy movies starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers – of Hungarian composer Emmerich Kalman’s final operetta, “Arizona Lady.” The tuneful rarity is having its American premiere, courtesy of Chicago Folks Operetta, at Stage 773 on West Belmont Avenue.

Though the production values are modest, an engaging cast makes it a musical entertainment as refreshing as a lemon sorbet on a hot summer’s day.

Kalman, who inherited from Franz Lehar the mantle of Viennese operetta master following his move to Vienna in the early 20th century, wrote “Arizona Lady” as an homage to his adopted homeland of America. In 1938 he found refuge here from the Nazis (who tried to persuade him to stay by dubbing him an “honorary Aryan”), returning to Europe after the war. He died in Paris in 1953 soon after completing the orchestration of “Arizona Lady” from his hospital bed.

The operetta was first heard via a German radio broadcast in 1954, but by then the operetta vogue was over. Following two productions in Germany in the mid-1950s, “Arizona Lady” vanished from the repertory.

While not as consistently inspired as the great operettas of Kalman’s prime (think “Countess Maritza” and “The Gypsy Princess”), the score is awash in hummable melodies, an unlikely if endearing paprikash spiced with “My Darling Clementine” and other bits of found Americana. Alfred Grunwald and Gustav Beer’s ’s libretto, dressed here in a new translation by Hersh Glagov and artistic director Gerald Frantzen, is cleverly constructed, with snappy dialogue and one of those abrupt happy endings so dear to operetta.

Since the formation of Chicago Folks Operetta in 2006 by Frantzen and his wife, general director Alison Kelly, the plucky troupe has rescued numerous gold and silver age operettas from undeserved oblivion, in small productions with big hearts. Stage 773’s intimate, unventilated little theater puts the show literally in the faces of the audience. (The audience at last weekend’s premiere included Kalman’s daughter, Yvonne Kalman.)

The title refers to a champion race horse but could just as well be our heroine, the flinty but vulnerable ranch owner Lona Farrell. Both horse and owner are stubborn and ornery, ripe for the taming. (Think of this un-PC show as “Kiss Me, Kate” with spurs.) Our hero, a guitar-pickin’ cowboy named Roy Dexter, proves just the man for the job. By the final curtain, he has won Lona from his rival, a sheriff, while foiling a gang of cattle rustlers who have made off with Arizona Lady and framed him for the theft.

Frantzen’s sweet lyric tenor and likeable manner make him a very winning Roy Dexter, in a role that fits him like a snug pair of jeans.

The other standout is Sara Maria Pardo as the plucky Nelly Nettleton, one-half of the show’s comic couple, an irresistible charmer who brings show-stopping pizzazz to her singing and dancing. Erich Buchholz is a hoot as her bumbling beau, Chester.

The lively and attractive supporting cast kicks up its heels in a well-paced staging by veteran Chicago director Bill Walters that includes choreographer August Tye’s thigh-slapping, “Oklahoma”-style choreography. Samuel-Hilaire S. Duplessis draws worthy playing from his 14-piece instrumental ensemble. The simple ranch-house set is illuminated by Julian Pike, with projections and sound by Tommy Nolan.