Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Theatre Review: "The Student Prince" from Pittsburgh CLO

As its closing offer for this year’s season Pittsburgh CLO offers what is considered a tried and true chestnut: Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly’s operetta The Student Prince. This venture demands expert singing and good orchestral playing. From that standpoint, principal artists Ed Dixon, Chad Johnson and Jacquelynne Fontaine sound superb as do members of the chorus. And the Tom Helm-led musicians providing instrumental support add to the richness of Romberg’s wonderful music.

The antiquated story certainly looks mighty thin and director James Brennan along with scenic designer Robert Bingham have done nothing to make it look special or inventive. Moreover Brennan has turned in a dreadful job with the presumably comic elements. Most especially he allows wretched overplaying by Tim Hartman, a local actor whose embellishments in this and other shows suggest that he belongs in a circus instead of the theatre. Here he often bellows like an elephant instead of speaking like a human. I found his performance an insult to the audience.

Adding to that insult, the program book contains no biographical information about the creators of the source of the performance, the people who wrote this famed show, although Executive Producer Van Kaplan gets a full page. Despite the consistent professionalism of CLO, this oversight makes CLO look like one of our local non-professional theatres which show their ignorance by saying nothing about the originators of the material which is the basis for their productions. In fact, when asked why there was nothing about the playwright, one local producer told me that there wasn’t enough print space. And I still remember another one telling me that their audiences didn’t care about such things as a justification for not even including the names of Rodgers and Hammerstein on his posters for Oklahoma.

From Wikipedia you could learn that Sigmund Romberg was born Siegmund Rosenberg to a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Around age 22 he moved to the United States from Vienna and became a café pianist, founded an orchestra and wrote songs. In his late 20s he started writing music for Broadway shows and, in his early 30s, adapted music by Franz Schubert for a big hit, Blossom Time. Subsequently he wrote his best-known operettas, The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928), He also wrote Rosalie (1928) with George Gershwin. His later works, such as Up in Central Park (1945), are considered more like American musicals. Romberg also created a number of film scores and, in the late 1940s, when he was in his 60s, Columbia Records got him to conduct orchestral versions of his music. Those performances, available now on CD, are considered collectors’ items.

On-line info about less-known Dorothy Donnelly shows that she was born in 1880, seven years before Romberg, and was the daughter of the manager of New York's Grand Opera House. She began her career as an actress and was quite successful, appearing in plays by Yeats and Shaw. In 1916, pre-Romberg, she was co-librettist for a short-lived operetta called Flora Bella with music by Charles Cuvillier and Milton Schwarzwald and started working with Romberg in Blossom Time.

The plot for The Student Prince concerns a young man next in-line for the throne in the Kingdom of Karlsberg in “the late 1800s.” As a venture into independent adulthood, Prince Karl Franz becomes a student at nearby Heidelberg University, not in disguise, where he hangs out with presumably riotous classmates and falls in love with a barmaid, Kathie. But duty calls him home to be the monarch and to marry his long-betrothed cousin Princess Margaret. Credit Donnelly with making it clear that such duties are painful.

Chad Johnson acquits himself well in the somewhat stock role of the Prince, suggesting charming innocence. And Jacquelynne Fontaine shines both in singing and acting Kathie, doing so with total conviction and naturalness. As Dr. Engel, the Prince’s tutor, Ed Dixon sings magnificently. In addition to Hartman, nine other Pittsburghers are in the cast in a variety of roles, small and smaller. They include Paul Palmer, Gene A. Saraceni, Peter Matthew Smith and Myrna Paris.

Incidentally, there’s a photo in the program book from the 1954 movie version of The Student Prince. The caption says “starring Mario Lanza” which is correct, except that the picture is of Edmund Purdom in the role. He voice-synched the songs. Lanza didn’t actually appear on screen, although he pre-recorded the entire soundtrack. Various reasons have been given for the substitution, including that Lanza walked out after an argument with the film’s producer or the director. Other speculations refer to Lanza being too fat to fit the part.

In this cast most people fit their parts expertly.

The Student Prince continues through Sunday August 8th at 2 p.m. at Benedum Center, Downtown. 412-456-6666 or