I don’t know if it’s spring fever or what, but April is always a busy month, theatrically speaking. All three local theatres have shows either opening or closing in April (You missed your chance to see ETC’s A Bright New Boise, but GGFCT has The Boys Next Door on the boards for another week and UND’s Scapino plays this coming Tuesday through Saturday – review coming soon! ), Conduit Theatre’s second Word Parlor event is happening on Monday the 20th, and lots of other performance events keep popping onto my radar every day. And though it’s perhaps a little premature to judge since I won’t be seeing UND’s latest show until next week, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the UND Music Department’s operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld, is the best of the bunch.
I’ve loved Greek mythology from way back, and so when I heard that this was going to be a comic take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth my interest was piqued. I mean, that myth isn’t exactly a laugh riot. In case you slept through that particular day in English class and are too lazy to Google it for yourselves, Orpheus is the most talented musician in the world, and the only thing he loves more than his music is the lovely Eurydice. But things get tragic, as things in Greek myths tend to do, when Eurydice steps on a poisonous snake and dies on their wedding day. Distraught, Orpheus makes the perilous journey into Hades to retrieve her. At first his request is refused, but then he plays music so beautiful that even the stones weep (my vodka-saturated mind might be meshing the original myth with Sarah Ruhl’s breathtaking adaptation, Eurydice, but the effect is the same) and Hades allows Orpheus to take Eurydice back to the land of the living, on one condition: he must not look back to see her following him or she will disappear and be lost to him forever. He makes it all the way to the surface, but in a moment of doubt he looks back and catches only a glimpse of her before she fades away forever. Not your typical set up for a rousing comedy.
Buck Ross’s English adaptation of the operetta by Jacques Offenbach (libretto by Ludovic Halevy and Hector-Jonathan Cremieux) twists the myth into a delightfully decadent treat. Eurydice (Jacy Thibert) is spoiled and bratty, Orpheus (Michael Lenselink) is self-involved and minimally talented (a duet between the two suggests that his success can be better attributed to popularity than actual achievement), and both have already started courting the affections of others; the two might have already parted ways if not for the inescapable and judgmental eye of Miss Public Opinion (Kaylee Lackman). Lackman’s portayal of Public Opinion, a tweedy and uptight dictator in an earthtone reimagining of J. K. Rowling’s Professor Umbridge is but one high point in a production that boasts many. She opens the show with a brief, humorous monologue about protecting the innocent public from scandal before introducing the lackluster lovers. When Thibert enters in a delightfully tacky (and slightly bedraggled) vintage wedding dress, draping herself across a couch while snatching petals off a sunflower, I was done. Thibert won me over with vocal as well as physical acrobatics, sometimes draping herself upside down off the cushions of the couch while continuing to sing. While flipping and flopping about the set, she often revealed a pair of ridiculously patterned leggings underneath her bridal finery, one more element of the spot-on costuming by Kelsey Langness, Angela Schmaltz, and Wesley Lawrence (who is also the director).
Often I will save my thoughts on the technical side of a production until the end, but I feel that in this case the technical aspects are part of what made this performance so successful. The recital hall in which the show plays is not without its limits. Designed for vocal performances usually requiring little movement or staging, there isn’t a ton of space to work with and the set design was minimal. However, rather than falling victim to this challenge, they rose to meet it. There were minimal set pieces, but they used them judiciously and with enough variation to create distinct locations from Orpheus and Eurydice’s home to Mount Olympus to the depths of Hades (the latter two which are both portrayed as nightclubs). My only petty complaint is the couch which travels from the couple’s home to Hades’ without any transformation save a change of artwork on the wall behind it, but in general the locations are dynamic enough and create the necessary scenes without trying to pack in too much superfluous detail. The Fire Hall Theatre and the Empire’s Theatre E are also stages with limited physical space, and both should take note of this production’s masterful use of limited space resources.
The costuming is also terrific. A blending of true theatrical costuming and the standard formalwear of traditional musical performance, there were moments of true joy for this tech-nerd’s heart. A member of the chorus had a pair of shoes so delightful, I wanted to interrogate her after the performance to find out if they were available in a sensible 16 wide. Five words people: hot pink glitter Converse hi-tops. Well, I’m not entirely sure that “hi-tops” is legitimately one word, but I digress. The initial complication in the plot revolves around Pluto’s (Jace Erickson) wooing of Eurydice in the guise of a shepherd; his first entrance in the guise of Aristeus is so funny: a blue EERC jumpsuit perhaps just a smidge too small gives Erickson the perfect simpleton disguise with which to capture Eurydice’s heart. When he reveals himself, the jumpsuit peels away to reveal a tux underneath, and Erickson’s characterization becomes smooth and cunning to match. He tricks Eurydice into stepping on a poisonous snake so that he can take her with him to the Underworld.
This turn of events would be just fine with the fed up Orpheus, if not for the stern recriminations of Public Opinion. She insists that he descend into the Underworld to retrieve his wife, and escorts him to Mount Olympus to appeal to Jupiter (Ryan King) for his aid. King is another of the show’s comedic delights as the blustery and adulterous Jupiter, wearing an ostentatious breastplate along with his jacket and tie. His long-suffering wife Juno (Lynneah Thompson) has a smaller singing role but is absolutely hysterical, lurking in all of the scenes with the Olympians clutching a bottle of nectar and a sour look on her face. She is: Over. It.
The rest of the Olympians are a motley and raucous crew wearing mismatched formalwear and alternate between sleepy sluggishness in their Olympus home and drunken decadence when Jupiter foolishly brings them on a trip to Hades for the party of all parties. Venus (Kaitlyn Holleman) is playfully sexy and just a little bit blue, making playful reference to her ability to tame “any organ that rhymes with [her] name” – I’ll give the slow kids a hot second to puzzle that one out. There is some pitch perfect cross-gender casting with Kelsey Langness playing the role of Cupid in a strange but somehow perfect white cosplay wig; she’s got Venus’ charm without the lewdness and delivers each line as if it should be accompanied by a knowing wink to the crowd. Diana (Angela Schmaltz) is the unstable virgin goddess desperately trying to lose her virginity, only to be undone by the machinations of her hypocritically libidinous father. Schmaltz’s vocal contortions are amazing, as is her ability to sound perfectly in control while looking and acting just a little bit cray cray. Mercury (Jocelyn Hansen), another playful cross-gender casting, is always on fast forward, making the “super-titles” appearing on the overhead projection screen especially useful during her number, and the rest of the Olympians (a chorus including Brianna Becks, David Fehr, Chris Feldman, Rachelle Ismond, Haley Lund, RJ Morin, Kara Roe, McKinley Solberg, Josh Strehlo, and Caleb VanOrnum) are a crew that conduct themselves like a herd of restless celebutantes, tearing up the bar on Olympus like Bieber’s entourage taking on the honeymoon suite at a Howard Johnson before descending to the Underworld for the real party to begin.
In a twist of the retelling, Jupiter leads Orpheus down to the Underworld so he can reclaim his bride, but Jupiter ends up taking a liking to her instead. Jupiter dismisses Hades’ servant John Styx (Chris Feldmann), who has just professed his own self-involved attraction to Eurydice while simultaneously bemoaning the loss of his kingdom of Boetia, and then turns his focus to the pursuit of Eurydice. To gain her attention, he is transformed by Cupid into a fly; King’s buzzing duet with Thibert is one of the show’s best numbers, and the suggestive costuming, including silver wings and one of those dopey kid’s headbands with glittery balls on stretched out springs, is cleverly inspired. In the end, everybody wins (except perhaps for the exasperated Public Opinion) as Jupiter steals Eurydice away not for romantic interludes but for a starring role in a new incarnation of MTV’s Jersey Shore. For real. The revelers exit the stage; the last to leave is Juno, still holding on to her bottle of booze and mean-muggin’ like a boss bitch. So much for true love.
Besides the outstanding vocal talent and the excellent attention to technical detail, what makes this show really come together for me is the camaraderie displayed by the cast. Each is able to take their scene-stealing moment and milk it for all it’s worth, then step back to let the next person have their moment to shine. If there are any warring egos behind the scenes, not a trace makes it to the stage. The choreography by Ali Angelone is just slapstick enough to complement the material without overwhelming the scene; it’s high camp at it’s best. The musical accompaniment is handled expertly by Keith Teepen, who plays throughout the entire production with only short break for dialogue – it’s the perfect amount of music for the production. The actors are never overwhelmed by the music, and yet the audience has nothing to wish for in terms of additional orchestration; a fine balance (though I’m sure his digits get quite the workout!). One could always wish for more space, more production, but this show succeeds beautifully without it. And if there are occasional moments where things get a little loose or sloppy (there were a couple of tumbles that it was hard to tell if they were planned pratfalls or legitimate stumbles over hems or scattered prop pieces), everyone in the case fully committed to the show and carried on, creating a truly engaging and joyful theatrical experience.
There is only one performance left, 3 pm on Sunday April 19. If you can go, I would highly recommend it. At $6 for Adults and $3 for Students/Seniors, they are all but giving the tickets away. Why not take a journey down into the Underworld; they throw the best parties and you’re guaranteed to have a hell of a time!
Tags: comedy, Comic Operetta, Cupid, Diana, Eurydice, Greek Tragedy, Green Mythology, Hades, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Juno, Jupiter, Mercury, Miss Jaye, Olympians, Opera, Operetta, Orpheus, Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus in the Underworld, UND Music, UND Music Department, UND Opera, Venus, World of Champagne