Brainless comedy, super singing
Check your brain at the door when you go see the Florentine Opera’s An Italian Girl in Algiers, which opened Friday at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. In his 1813 comic opera, Rossini managed to stretch even the loose standards of credibility upheld in the world of comic opera. Next to Italian Girl, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road to Morocco looks like a sober documentary.
I kept thinking of those old Hope & Crosby road movies as I enjoyed this production. The colorful, cartoonish sets, the colorful, cartoonish people, the absurd plot, the arbitrary ending, even the touch of chauvinism were all there. If Dorothy Lamour had shown up as the exotic love interest, she would have fit right in. (I won’t rehash the goofy story — of Italians held captive by the love-stupified Bey of Algiers; click here if you’re interested.)
Director Bill Theisen and a very skilled, uncommonly lively cast wisely switched off logic and went with silliness. Everyone plays to type and plays big. Since everyone operates on the same scale, the comedy comes across in the big theater and no one looks out of whack. The humor is dumb, but the comedy is smart in its execution.
The characters trace to commedia dell’arte stereotypes, and bass Kevin Glavin exactly nailed the blustering, befuddled and finally harmless brute as Mustafa, who can manage neither his emotions nor his sultinate. Daniela Mack’s Isabella, though, comes off as a presciently Modern Girl, if your idea of a modern girl is Lauren Bacall in How to Marry a Millionaire. (There I go again with a movie reference. Sorry; it’s that kind of opera and that kind of staging.) Mack has all the moves and the haughtiness of a girl who’s sexy, knows it and knows how to use it. The one credible aspect of this show is the notion that men are helpless in her presence.
Young Erica Schuller, one of the Florentine’s Opera Studio Artists for the year, played Elvira, Mustafa’s chief wife, as the other side of feminine guile: The swooning, long-suffering martyr. She learns some new tactics from her supposed Italian rival, and it’s fun to watch the lessons sink into her body and attitude. Julia Elise Hardin, a fellow Studio Artist, made a charming Zulma, Elvira’s nominal maid but actual pal and co-conspirator. She had a nifty amorous moment with Scott Johnson, yet another Studio Artist, as Haly, Mustafa’s long-suffering chief guard.
Robert McPherson made Lindoro, the nominal hero, almost as befuddled as Mustafa. I loved the hint of Groucho that Daniel Belcher brought to poor Taddeo, the schlub who believes against all odds that Isabella loves him.
The comedy plays as part of a larger theatrical machinery fueled by the music. Conductor Joseph Rescigno and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra heard and delivered the pratfalls in the Overture, which was a good sign. Theisen’s sensitivity to the music gave rhythm to verbal and physical comedy in both intimate exchanges and big, choreographed scenes involving Scott S. Stewart’s alert, assured chorus. The Act 1 finale, Theisen’s grandest achievement, is a Busby Berkeley extravaganza on wheels.
Italian Girl in Algiers will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (with Alessandra Volpe as Isabella) and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 19-20. Tickets are $28-$108 at the Florentine website and ticket line, 414 291-5700. The Florentine, the Skylight and Next Act Theatre have joined in a package deal that gets you into the two operas and Next Act’s A Sleeping Country for a bargain $100. The Florentine ticket office is handling this joint effort.