I suppose if I'd done my homework, I'd have been less disappointed by Central City Opera's production of The Student Prince. Other than a vague memory of some infectiously rousing drinking songs, I knew nothing about the operetta. I thought it would have the dizzy, stylish melodiousness of Johann Strauss or Franz Lehar. But in this musical -- composed by Sigmund Romberg in 1924 -- Viennese waltz meets American sentimentality and is squashed flat under the weight. Dorothy Donnelly's insipid book and lyrics don't help, either.
The evening's not a dead loss. The drinking songs I remembered are indeed there, along with some very pretty love songs. The cast boasts a number of fine voices, and the orchestra, under the baton of Douglas Fisher, is tight. In short, a forty-minute medley of songs from this production would make a delightful after-dinner entertainment. Unfortunately, the Central City audience is treated to the entire story.
Prince Karl Franz of the fictional country of Karlsberg is betrothed to his cousin, Margaret, but he's allowed a year as a student at Heidelberg before the wedding. There he finds drinking companions and a heady freedom. He also falls in love with a beautiful waitress, Kathie. But long before his allotted year is over, the prince is called back by his dying father to take up his regal duties.
Director Michael Ehrman has chosen to play all of this straight; in fact, some of the performances verge on melodrama. When John McVeigh, as Karl Franz, calls "Kathie, come back" to a vanishing apparition, with all the fervor of Laurence Olivier's Heathcliff grieving the death of his immortal Cathy in the film version of Wuthering Heights, it's hard not to giggle. Diane Alexander's Kathie is also somewhat stagey, and she looks far more solid and mature than the slight McVeigh. You don't sense any genuine feeling between the two of them. Still, when they open their mouths to sing to each other, all is forgiven. Alexander has a thrilling soprano; McVeigh's voice is pure and clear. Together they make "Deep in My Heart" profoundly moving.
In fact, all of the singing, including that of Karin Wolverton as Princess Margaret and Peter Tantsits as Captain Tarnitz, is marvelous. Marc Embree unleashes a terrific voice in his final-act solo, making you wish you'd heard a lot more of his Ruder throughout the evening. I also would have enjoyed a solo turn by Liam Bonner, who had only a few solo phrases but whose rich sound often soared above the rest of the chorus.
The prince is accompanied on his trip to Heidelberg by two surrogate fathers: the kind Dr. Engel and the vain and preening Lutz, and these are two of the most successful characterizations of the evening. Daniel Narducci is clearly far too young to play Engel, but he exudes a genuine kindness, and his voice, too, is warm and kindly. Gene Scheer works against the flabbiness of the script, giving Lutz a caustic, unsentimental humor that's apparently partially improvised. Perhaps someone should have him rewrite the entire script.
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