nytheatre.com review by Judith Jarosz
October 9, 2007
There is little opportunity to enjoy the wonderful world of operetta live these days, so I was excited to learn that Musicals Tonight!, the company that specializes in short runs of concert-style revivals of old musical pieces, was presenting Victor Herbert's Naughty Marietta in their 07-08 season. This operetta opened on Broadway on November 7, 1910, and became Herbert's greatest success. The score includes many well-known songs, the most notable being "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life," which was sung by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the popular film version.
Set in New Orleans in 1780, the show tells how Captain Richard Warrington (Captain Dick) is commissioned to unmask and capture a notorious French pirate calling himself Bras-Pique—and how he is helped and hindered by a high-spirited runaway Contessa Marietta. Bras-Pique parades as the foppish son, Etienne, of the corrupt New Orleans Governor. Marietta, attempting to avoid an arranged marriage, has hidden on a "bride ship" from France and is protected by the captain. Upon arrival, she disguises herself as the son of a puppeteer. Etienne discovers her identity and vows to wed her, to the dismay of his beautiful mistress/slave Adah, who loves him. Marietta is at the point of accepting his hand in marriage when Captain Warrington arrives on the scene, reveals Etienne as the notorious Bras-Pique, and wins Marietta. Meanwhile, Simon is a sailor looking for a soft job in New Orleans and Lizette is from the bride ship and is looking for a soft-headed spouse; they unite after a humorous courtship.
The rehearsal time for this company is very short and the singers hold their scores while performing. I was confused by some of the casting. The romantic leads don't have the classical vocal style or training needed to sing in a legit operetta style, so what we are really given is a musical theater version of this operetta where some fare better than others.
In the title role, Lisa Villamaria is a pert and pretty Marietta. She gives it her all, but vocally the music proves a challenge for her with some very tight high notes, and her lyrics were sometimes unintelligible. Tony Barton is a handsome, believable Bras-Pique/Etenne. He has played the role elsewhere and was able to perform the role without having to look at his score. I do wish he would make some clearer choices to highlight the differences between his two characters. Colin E. Liander brings a light sweet Irish tenor to Captain Dick, and Maegan McConnell as the slave Adah is beautiful and acts well, but struggles in a mezzo role that has too low a tessitura for her lovely soprano voice. In the character roles of Simon and Lizette, both Robert Anthony Jones and Wendi Bergamini display seasoned vocal prowess and comic ability, however some of the comic moments, though meant to be played broadly, drag in pace and then get hit as if with an anvil in delivery. I saw the first performance in front of an audience, so this will undoubtedly tighten as the run continues. The ensemble men are uneven but lively, while the three ladies portraying the various roles of the ensemble women (Christina LaDuca, Natalie Rado, and Andrea Schmidt) have the best vocal production for this kind of piece, and all three sing and move beautifully.
Director and choreographer Thomas Sabella-Mills does a good job of moving everyone around the stage and I love what he did with the men in "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!" Special kudos must be given to music director/vocal arranger/accompanist James Stenborg, who manages to play the entire score while upstage behind a placard and never being able to make eye contact with the singers! No one is credited with design for the minimal set or costumes, while the simple lighting design by Yingzhi Zhang serves well.
I was grateful to be able to hear this score sung live, so if you cherish this music and don't mind the shift in style, grab your opportunity to see this rarely done piece.