Brian Jacobson

Bugs Bunny on Broadway with the MSO

By - Apr 18th, 2010 01:19 am

Long-Haired Hare (1949)

When you obtain press tickets for a review, you usually get good seats — somewhere in the middle on the first floor. In the case of the encore return of Bugs Bunny on Broadway featuring the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at the Riverside Theater, I sort of wish I had gotten balcony seats. That way, I could have brought opera glasses and watched the skill the musicians must have shown slicing their way through the works of Wagner, Rossini, Tchaikovsky — and a whole lot of Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn.

If you read this before Sunday’s final performance at 2:30 p.m. (and penultimate show in the U.S. before going global and finally re-tooling after a 20-year run), try for the cheap seats so you can watch the violinists zing and glissando through chase scenes or pluck and cliff-hang during on-screen comic moments.

MSO’s lead violinist caught laughing between sets at Bugs Bunny on Hollywood.

Part of the thrill attending this event is definitely watching cartoons with a live orchestra. Most eyes are watching the big screen and laughing aloud as Bugs makes mincemeat of Elmer Fudd in Rabbit of Seville. But my eyes (having already memorized most of these cartoons from a Saturday-morning childhood trance) were watching the faces of the MSO musicians. Many of them tried to stay professional and focused on the sheet music and the click track in their headphones. But sometimes the spoken lines by Mel Blanc and Arthur Q. Bryan were so darn … funny.

It’s an interesting experience, watching old cartoon shorts in the glorious venue that once showed them 60 years prior. The crowd was a mix of die hard symphony lovers, parents wanting to expose their kids to classical music and folks wanting to just laugh.

The show doesn’t always fulfill everyone’s desire at every moment — which can be disappointing at times.

The MSO really do extend themselves beyond being a “gun-for-hire” for a national tour. While certain specialty musicians from the Warner Bros. troupe handle the hard parts (playing that one slide chord on the guitar that start the title cards of many WB toons), there is a certain technical artistry and flair MSO musicians need to interpret the prolific and creative original scores by Stalling, that often pitch forward and lurch to a stop.

But you don’t always get to hear the MSO play. The pattern is often one-on, one-off where the musicians just watch the screen and original recorded music. There is also a kind of “Pops” atmosphere as creator/conductor George Daughtery talks to the audience as part historian and part QVC pitchman.

1957’s What’s Opera, Doc?

The cartoons themselves rely heavily on Chuck Jones cartoons from the later period at Warner Brothers a few years before they shut down his studio. Sometimes this is great (1957’s What’s Opera, Doc?) and sometimes not (the abysmal 1959’s Baton Bunny). Thank goodness they included 1949’s Long Haired Hare, which lampoons star tenors and Leopold Stowkowski.

Perhaps it’s good that the show is set to be re-imagined as it is getting kind of long in the bucktooth. The cartoons shown relied on a late-in-life friendship with Chuck Jones while missing some superb work by I. “Friz” Freleng and Fred “Tex” Avery.

The musical direction is down to a nuclear science after 20 years but sometimes forgets to laugh at itself. The second act opener of Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin was fine to showcase the MSO, but opening the whole show with Ride of the Valkyries was unnecessary given its re-appearance later.

Overall, this may be the perfect Sunday afternoon event if you want to find an exciting way to yank your 8-year-old off Nickelodeon or Disney XD. The music is never boring, the cartoons are big and brassy and you will find yourself singing along to the Michael Maltese/Milt Franklyn lyrics set to Tannhäuser:

“Oh Bwunhilde, you’w so wuvwy!”
“Yes I know it; I can’t help it!”‘

Tickets are still available for the Sunday, Apr. 18 afternoon show at the Riverside Theatre. Visit the Bugs on Broadway page through the MSO or if after Noon call 414-286-3663.

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