Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2005
Every year, usually early in the season, the Mac-Haydn treats local audiences to a gem from the canon of English operetta. These are memorable because, with the exception of a couple of the Savoy operas, operetta is seldom heard these days. In its hey-day from the 1880’s to the 1920’s, it was an extremely popular art form, and attending the Mac-Haydn’s operetta offerings it is easy to see why.
This year the show on the boards is Sigmund Romberg’s 1924 operetta The Student Prince which, believe it or not, was the longest running Broadway show of the Roaring Twenties, a decade more strongly associated with jazz than operetta. Even the ground-breaking Showboat which opened three years later, couldn’t beat it. Ironically, Romberg had to sue the producers, Lee and Jacob Shubert, who hated the score and the plot, to get the show staged. The Shuberts changed their tune when the show made them a fortune! The Student Prince was so popular that it had its first Broadway revival within five years of its original run. And yet today only the most fanatical operetta nuts can whistle any of the gorgeous tunes from the show. I could manage Gaudeamus Igatur and The Drinking Song before listening to a recording.
The Student Prince has a more sensible plot than many operettas, or grand operas for that matter, and it does not have a happy ending. The show is a coming of age story about Prince Karl Franz (Brian Cheney), heir apparent to the throne of Karlsburg. He has grown to manhood with a great deal of military training and book learning, and no idea how to be a human being. His fiancée, the Princess Johanna (Karla Shook), to whom he has been betrothed since childhood, tells him as much, and his grandfather King Ferdinand (Byron DeMent), eager for the match to go through, sends him off to the University at Heidelberg, Germany, in the company of Doctor Engel (Richard Koons), to live like a regular student for a while in hopes that the experience will soften him.
With his flamboyantly snooty valet Lutz (Stephen Bolte) and HIS valet Hubert (Felix Hess), the Prince and Doctor Engel take up residence at Ruder’s Inn run by Ruder (Robert Hamel), his niece Kathie (Tiffany Thornton), and a buxom fraulein named Gretchen (Marcia Kunkel). It takes a while, but Karl Franz soon finds he thoroughly enjoys student life, and especially the company of Kathie. The couple contemplate an elopement but just then word comes the King Ferdinand is dying, and Karl Franz must choose between his love and his royal duty. The decision is complicated by the fact that Princess Johanna is also in love with someone else, Captain Tarnitz (Grant Golson).
This is an operetta so there is a complete corps of singing students and fetching frauleins to back up all the soloists. Beer is guzzled and sauerkraut is munched and duels are fought. And everybody sings, sings, sings!
These proceedings are all professionally accomplished by the Mac-Haydn company, looking swell (though HOT) in Jimm Halliday’s costumes, and in lusty voice.
But the heart of The Student Prince is the Prince himself, and I confess that I was a little leery when I read in the advance publicity that an “opera star” had been cast. I understand that the role of Karl Franz is one of the most demanding tenor parts in operetta, so I had no doubt that a strong singer was required, but opera is a very different art form from what is done at the Mac-Haydn. Opera singers are not used to being miked, and are therefore taught to sing forcefully enough to fill the cavernous spaces in which grand opera is usually performed. The idea of sitting as close as one gets at the Mac to, say, Luciano Pavarotti singing at full throttle is an ear-splitting thought.
Also, opera singers are generally not actors, and again, in close quarters, someone who sang beautifully but stood there like a stick the rest of the time would have been a disaster.
So imagine my delight when I discovered in Brian Cheney a wonderful tenor AND a fine actor! He is handsome in a very Mario Lanza/Tyrone Power/matinee-idol-of-the-1940’s kind of way, which is perfect for this role. He sings magnificiently, but knows how and when to use a “stage voice” as opposed to an operatic sound. And he is an able counterpart to the reliably excellent Tiffany Thornton.
Thornton is a beautiful and talented soprano with strong stage presence. No matter how wobbly a production might be, you know everything will be all right when she takes the stage. In this uniformly excellent production she is the icing on the cake. Her Kathie is smart, independent, and warm hearted. It is no wonder all the students in Heidelberg crowd in to Ruder’s Inn to be served by such a woman.
I was also impressed with the singing of Koons as Doctor Engel. The role is seriously underwritten, or at least it is in this version which has been adapted by director Joseph Patton from Dorothy Donnelly’s original. Koons is another talented and attractive tenor, and it is a pity he isn’t given more to do in this production.
Stephen Bolte always makes me laugh, and so I was sad that he didn’t make me laugh more here. His extravagant performance as Lutz is just too too utterly utter, to quote Oscar Wilde. My companion noted that he was playing to the balcony, but of course there isn’t any balcony at the Mac-Haydn. It was too much of a muchness. Tone it down by half and it would be hilarious. As is, it is impressive, but overwhelming.
The person I found hysterical, and fascinating to watch was Hess. I could have sworn that he had been drawn and animated by the legendary Chuck Jones of Warner Brothers cartoon fame. And if you told me that Noel Blanc was behind the scenes doing his voice I would have believed that too. I look forward to seeing what else this young man can do as the season progresses.
On a long car ride last week I listened to the first ever complete recording* of The Student Prince and when I heard Come, Boys I immediately had an image of Tiffany Thornton being hoisted aloft as she soared, literally and vocally, above the male chorus on those high notes. Well, they didn’t hoist her up, but she did stand on a table, so I was pretty close.
The show is long at three hours, but after listening to my recording, which uses Romberg’s original orchestrations and therefore I assume also the original plotline and song order, Patton’s version seems similar to Romberg and Donnelly’s original. The Student Prince was written in five acts and probably was performed with two intermissions, which I realize would make the total run time longer still, but might aid in the fanny fatigue that inevitably arises when one sits for a long period. Certainly there is not a dull moment in the show, and Patton has done a masterful job of utilizing the Mac-Haydn’s nooks and crannies, as has set designer Robert A. Hamel, who gets to prance about on his own creations for once!
The Student Prince runs through June 19 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family, although children under 10 may find it a long time to sit. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
(* The two-CD set is available on Jay Records.)
I found a fascinating article about The Student Prince online. Golden days in old Heidelberg: The first-act finale of Sigmund Romberg’s ‘The Student Prince.’ by William A. Everett first appeared in the fall 1994 issue of American Music.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005