Review: Keep on smiling

Where: 773 Theatre, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through July 14
Contact: chicagofolksoperetta.org

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Chicago Folks Operetta has launched their 2013 season with the first Chicago production in some 25 years of Franz Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles” (“Das Land des Lächelns”). While Lehár is renowned for “The Merry Widow,” for my money, “The Land of Smiles” is far more musically gorgeous. This small company, which has been producing operettas for the last eight years, has bestowed a gift upon Chicago with this sprite and pretty musical creation.

“The Land of Smiles” is the story of Lisa, an Austrian noblewoman, who falls in love with Chinese diplomat Prince Sou-Chong. When he is suddenly instructed to return to China to become the ruler of his native province, Lisa chooses to give up her European life to become his wife. Once in China, Sou-Chong is compelled by tradition to marry four Manchurian princesses. While he resists at first, his uncle Chang, who abhors Lisa, convinces him that it is his duty. Lisa is shocked and appalled. In a break from opera convention, their happy ending isn’t destroyed by death. They simply agree to disagree, and Lisa heads back to Vienna with her childhood friend Gustl, who also leaves love behind, having become enchanted with Sou-Chong’s sister, Mi. Sou-Chong instructs his sister that all they can do, in spite of their broken hearts, is to keep smiling.

The production is in English, with a translation by Hersh Glagov and Gerald Frantzen.

Geoffrey Agpalo, who was splendid in last year’s Chicago Folks Operetta “The Cousin from Nowhere,” is a fine Sou-Chong. His tenor is honeyed, strong, and convincing, and he offers a heart-warming rendition of the operetta’s most famous number, “All My Heart is Yours” (“Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”).

Lisa is brought to life by soprano Chelsea Morris. Her singing is both pretty and pure and she has the ability to command the stage with grace and poise.

The second couple, Mi (Christine Bunuan) and Gustl (Zachary Elmassian), are amusing, not least because Elmassian is one tall glass of water and Bunuan is the essence of diminutive. At one point Gustl kneels to sing to Mi, and in this posture she’s only an inch or two taller than him. When they embrace for a dance, you think it will be ridiculous, but in fact the two of them have such wonderful chemistry together that you almost forget the tall-small combination. Elmassian is a capable baritone, and while Bunuan’s singing isn’t perfect, she’s the best actor on stage by far. She brings out the perky, funny, sweetness of Mi.

Kevin Grubb’s Uncle Chang is nothing short of a let-down. He’s the villain of the piece, but appears as threatening as an accountant meekly droning out quarterly profit and loss figures.

Conductor Kim Diehnelt masterminds the orchestra with flair. The theater has no orchestra pit, so the 20 instrumentalists are crowded onto a platform adjacent to stage right, yet their sound is airy and attractive, made all the more so with the glimmering sound of a harp built in the 1920s. (“The Land of Smiles” was completed in 1926, so this adds a nice period touch.)

The stage direction by Elizabeth Margolius is almost entirely terrible. She consistently has the ensemble engage in slow motion or stop action movement, often putting her players in the most ridiculous postures that you worry they will topple to the floor. It is so distracting that at times you have no recourse but to close your eyes. Why she expended so much energy on this is a mystery, since she was desperately needed in the solo numbers and duets. The singers here merely stand stiffly still. One of the few exceptions to this is in the first act, when she chooses to have Sou-Chong surrounded by three silent “puppeteers” who try to look like they are controlling the singer’s movements. Since this was not even close to being in sync, it resulted in the weird visual of the puppet controlling the masters. That she repeated this approach with Mi later in the show only adds insult to injury.

Liviu Pasare, who added wonderful visuals to CFO’s 2012 production of “The Circus Princess,” returns with a very large video screen at the back of the stage.
The cons of this production are far outweighed by the pros. The story moves along briskly and the music is utterly charming. Don’t wait another 25 years. See this production while you can.