REVIEWS: The Chocolate Soldier

The Chocolate Soldier in Concert
Backstage April 21, 2005
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Although composer Oscar Strauss’ hit 1908 Viennese operetta The Chocolate Soldier was inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, the idea did not inspire any confidence in Shaw. He insisted that the character names be changed and none of his dialogue be used.

This rare and ambitious concert presentation by Musicals Tonight! proved The Chocolate Soldier to be a charming, melodic work, wittier than most operettas, even with the non-Shavian dialogue and lyrics provided by librettists Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson (in an English translation by Stanislaus Stange). Thomas Mills’ production was delightfully entertaining, while proving that Shaw’s original message that our heros usually turn out to have feet of clay.

At the piano, James Stenborg performed the heroic feat of liltingly playing the entire operetta score as a one-man orchestra. The acoustics of the 45th Street Theatre continue to impress with their terrific clarity and warmth; every word, both sung and spoken, could be understood. The operetta’s famous theme, “My Hero,” became very familiar by evening’s end.

The cast for this undertaking was uniformly excellent, though the women had the more operatic voices and the men were more adept at the comedy. In the title role, Paul Jason Green was a charismatic hero with a personable manner and animated expressions. As the heroine who hides him in her room at gunpoint and then tries to keep her fiancé from finding out, Morgan James was beautiful in appearance and voice.

Theatre veteran George S. Irving was suitably blustery as her father, Col. Popoff, cleverly matched by Neva Rae Powers as his nervous wife. James Sasser as a hero of the Bulgarian War was amusingly pompous, while Lisa Trader as the cousin who is in love with him was underutilized in this small role.

The Chocolate Soldier
April 6, 2005
Reviewed by Paul Buhtanic

An attractive pair of leads with equally attractive voices, an unusually strong supporting cast, a talented vocal ensemble, plus octogenarian Tony Award winner George S. Irving -- what more could anyone ask of any revival of a musical that is loosely based on George Bernard Shaw's comic classic Arms and the Man!  The answer is "not a thing."

In the capable hands of director Thomas Mills, this "reincarnation" receives a swiftly and deftly-paced reincarnation which is all the more remarkable for an almost a "bare bones" production. With no scenery to speak of and just a few odd pieces of required furniture and a few basic props plus a single piano accompanist and a cast with talent to spare, Mills proves that there is life in this old (1919) "chestnut" yet.  It's often poignant and frequently telling lyrics accompanied by the sumptuous music of Oscar Strauss remain as charming, delightfully witty, and memorable as ever.

The score's most famous standard is "My Hero" but there are at least twenty-odd additional numbers that serve the musical most pleasingly.  

Morgan James is a very young and very pretty soprano whose vocal ability has a most impressive range/register, with nary an annoying trill or vibrato to upset the flow of her phrasings.  Her voice is like liquid crystal, a tribute to her training at the Juilliard School.  She can also act up a storm as the rather spoiled, romantic, petulant, and willful Nadina Popoff, the story's heroine who is engaged to a  local hero.  He is a man she obviously doesn't love, a factor that becomes quite clear when her bedroom is invaded one evening by a charming, fatigued, and hungry deserter from the Serbian army which has been besieging her Bulgarian homeland.

That deserter is none other than our story's hero, a young man who actually turns out to be a Swiss pacifist.  Bumberlee (Bumberli) also just happens to be, as we soon discover, a lover of chocolate.  He is played and sung to perfection by young, handsome, and extremely talented  Paul Jason Green.  His Bumberlee ("The Chocolate Soldier") is an obvious and antithetical "match," temperamentally, for our overly romantic and overly sensitive heroine.  And his tenderly unassuming lyrical tenor is a perfect match for her lovely soprano.  We know from the first that these two are destined for one another and that it will take the full two acts for them to reconcile their differences/ But all that's beside the point.  It is the fun of watching and listening to these two get to the final clinch that makes the whole thing work. 

The Chocolate Soldier proves such a worthwhile and totally satisfying theatre-going experience because its libretto by Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson allows room for innovation and improvisation.  All the major actors and ensemble players are well-trained in double-takes and bon mots.  The subtleties of their facial expressions and physical gesturings make for a winning combination when entwined within the libretto's artful sub-plottings.  Particularly effective in this regard are Mr. Green and Ms. James.  The two of them work beautifully and sincerely with and through the romantic complications that are at the core of the storyline and are both quite adept at underplaying its proliferation of satirical moments.

Neva Rae Powers as Nadina's flirtatious and gullible mother Aurelia, and Lisa Trader as her man-hungry and scheming cousin Mascha are also blessed with marvelous voices, excellent stage presence, and audience appeal.  James Stasser adds stark and comic contrast to Mr. Green's Soldier in the supporting role of Alexius, Nadina's excessively vain and ever-preening, ever-posturing betrothed.  He provides satirical comic relief as well as a most pleasant baritone.

Then, of course, there is the divine George S. Irving as Popoff, Nadina's father and Aurelia's husband.  His voice is amazing.  Stentorian in the wisest sense (if such a thing is possible) he commands the stage whenever he appears in a virtual cameo role but never to the disservice of his fellows.  At 84, he is truly "a theatrical treasure."

Act One opens with Bulgarian Soldiers singing "We Are Marching Through the Night" from behind the audience.  In Aurelia's boudoir our heroine is joined by her mother and cousin for "We, Too, Are Lonely," a song that captures the spirit of women left behind as their men are off making war.  This lament is counterbalanced with the Soldiers' intoning "We Are Searching for the Foe."

Nadina, Aurelia, and Mascha continue their lament with complaints in three successive "arias,"  "What Can We Do Without a Man?" and "Say Good Night" and "Melodrama" before Nadina has her solo, "My Hero."  When Bumberlee appears, he and Nadina charm us with "Chocolate Soldier" and "Sympathy."  The act concludes with most of the cast involved in "Seek the Spy" and "Finaletto."

Act Two opens with a clever song about Popoff's missing coat entitled "The Tale of the Coat."  It seems this coat had been given to Bumberlee by Aurelia whom he had charmed into harboring him along with Nadina and Mascha.  However, unbeknownst to him, each of the women had placed her picture with a somewhat incriminating salutation into one of its several pockets.  When Popoff asks his coat upon his return from battle, each woman seeks to prevent his finding her photo, a situation that triggers a very silly but effective attempt by the three women to retrieve her indiscretion.

When Bumberlee returns, he and Nadina are still somewhat at odds and they sing "That Would Be Lovely."  A number for Mascha and Alexius entitled "Falling in Love" proves the basis for a second most predictable pairing.  "The Letter," a solo for Nadina, begins anachronistically and quite cleverly with a few chords of "Dear Friend" from She Loves Me.  When Ms. James starts to hum those chords she suddenly stops and says words to the effect of that being the wrong show and goes into the number that predates "Dear Friend" but more or less has the same desired results.

The finale set cast and ensemble players on stage once again to well-deserved and sustained applause.

Rating:  4 WILLYS  (Not bad for a minimalist production!)

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