Review: ‘Madame Pompadour’ a merry bedroom romp

Naughty if tuneful behavior at King Louis’ court

Once again Chicago Folks Operetta has taken a Fall – that’s Leo Fall – on behalf of an unjustly neglected Viennese operetta from the early years of the 20th century.

With their currently running production of the Austrian composer’s “Madame Pompadour” at the Vittum Theater on Chicago’s Near North Side, the company’s husband-and-wife directors, Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly, continue their winning streak of Fall operettas.

There are a couple of clunky moments in Amy Hutchison’s staging that owe mainly to the limited acting ability of some inexperienced cast members, though not enough of them to spoil the fun of this enjoyably frothy summer entertainment. Well worth seeing mainly for the seductive performance by soprano Kimberly McCord in the title role, “Pompadour” marks the opening of the folks operetta’s 10th anniversary season.

Fall contributed much to the international success of Viennese operetta in the early 1900s but has since fallen into the shadow of composers Franz Lehar and Emmerich Kalman. Yet his tunefulness, superb word-setting and delectable orchestrations mark him as a master of the genre in his own right. He died of cancer, at 52, in 1925, three years after “Pompadour” had its first performance in Berlin.

The new English translation by Frantzen and Hersh Glagov used in CFO’s new production is a Chicago premiere but, in a sense, an American premiere as well, given the heavily rewritten versions that have represented Fall’s masterpiece in this country up till now.

Their lyrics are heavily laced with naughty double entendres, clever rhymes and sly topical references (”Fifty Shades of Grey” pops up at one point), in keeping with Fall’s risque bedroom farce about King Louis XV’s mistress and secretary, Madame Pompadour, and the amorous count, Rene d’Estrades, she hires as her personal bodyguard on the night shift. Matters turn complicated when the king returns unexpectedly to the Versailles court, only to find a half-dressed Rene in his mistress’ boudoir.

I could have done without the two recurring gags – one involving the fatuous king (Jonah Winston), the other his bumbling chief of police, Maurepas (Robert Morrissey), both chewing every stick of designer Andrew Hildner’s furniture. Neither gag bears elaborating here or is especially funny.

Even so, Fall’s score is rich with memorable melodies (the three big waltz numbers in particular) and comic songs that are capably delivered by the principal singers, ensemble members and instrumentalists.

Music director Anthony Barrese has a decided feel for the music and secures crisp, buoyant playing from his 21-piece orchestra, which is tucked away at the side rear of the stage. Both the stage director and choreographer Sara Stewart Schumann manage to exploit the luxuriously deep playing area to keep the show in more or less constant animation. The courtly, 18th century style costumes are credited to Kate Grudichak.

With its 300 seats, good acoustics, clear sightlines and comfortable contemporary design, the Vittum Theater is by far the best Chicago venue the nomadic folks operetta has come across to date. This may well be the ideal permanent home the company has long been searching for. (And it’s air-conditioned.)

McCord isn’t the entire show but she just about walks away with it. Vocally and dramatically, the role of Pompadour suits her to perfection. Her singing is clear, rich and beautiful, yet wonderfully strong and steady when required to nail high notes. Clever, poised and alluring, her heroine is supremely confident in the power she wields over men yet captivating enough to put us on her side from the get-go.

Frantzen is also fine as the philandering count in disguise, his ardent and powerful tenor almost too powerful for this intimate theater space. Kelly (as Pompadour’s confidante, Belotte) and CFO veteran Erich Buchholz (as the conceited “people’s poet” Joseph Calicot, whose freespirited verses set up the show’s subplot) sing and dance up a storm in their comic supporting roles. Rachel Olson, as the count’s loyal wife Madeleine, does well despite being decked out in one of the show’s more unflattering wigs.

There is more Fall to come from the company this fall: His 1910 hit “The Girl in the Train” will run Sept. 4-13 at the Madison Street Theater in Oak Park.

2.5 stars

Chicago Folks Operetta’s production of Fall’s “Madame Pompadour” continues through Aug. 2 at the Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble St.; $40, $35 for seniors, $25 for students; 773-342-4141, chicagofolksoperetta.org.

John von Rhein is a Tribune critic

jvonrhein@tribpub.com

Twitter @jvonrheinChicago

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