|Lindsey Lefler and Jacob Mott|
My background in light opera is very, very light – so much so that I didn’t realize that The Student Prince was not a Gilbert and Sullivan work until I saw the program at the Light Opera of Portland (LOoP) production Sunday evening. When I talked to some cast members after the show I understood – Dorothy Donnelly and Sigmund Romberg’s 1924 operetta, billed on the program as “A Spectacular Light Opera,” is exactly the kind of thing that Gilbert and Sullivan so brilliantly skewered in their slyly subversive body of work. It is a real tribute to director Dennis Britten and his cast that I was able to thoroughly enjoy the production despite its markedly aristocratic bent.
While the book lacks the relentlessly witty patter of G&S, the story is structured exactly like some of their best-loved classics – the wealthy prince/king falls in love with the beautiful, but humbly-born barmaid, while the lovely and high-born princess (the king’s betrothed) seems to have given her heart to the soldier assigned to be her companion and bodyguard. I fully expected the king to abandon his throne, or at the very least to discover that the barmaid and princess had been switched at birth – but alas, in The Student Prince duty trumps passion, and it is honorable to uphold class distinctions. The play is by no means dry – it’s actually a joyous celebration of the freedom and exuberance of youth (at least, for men of the right background) expressed through their enthusiastic embrace of wine, women and song at the University of Heidelberg. It is loaded with rousing songs, stirring harmonies, familiar melodies, nostalgia, melodrama and beer-swilling frat boys (or the their 19th century Heidelberg predecessors), with a nice touch of pathos as the prince’s loyal tutor/mentor rescues him temporarily from the chains of his noble birth yet counsels him ultimately back into the life of civic obligation into which he was born. Better yet, the vocals are every bit as challenging – sometimes simply breathtaking (quite literally for the artists, I’m sure).
Bill Wuertz’s work as Doctor Engel, the tutor, is a real highlight. His voice occasionally wobbles, but no more than one would expect of an old man who spends his last days briefly recapturing his lost youth, and “Golden Days” is genuinely touching. For comic relief, we have both the prince’s valet Lutz (Rob Patrick) and the valet’s valet, Hubert (Linh Nguyen), jointly painting a picture of snobbery taken to hilarious extreme. On the distaff side, Pat Lach (as the Grand Duchess Anastasia) sweeps around the stage with delicious grandeur, and Gabrielle Widman (Gretchen, the maid at the Inn) counters with earthy humor until her reappearance in Act III, when she dons a fine dress and puts on lofty airs of her own. Becca Stuhlberg plays a key role as Princess Margaret; she is a deft vocalist, dances gracefully, and tackles perhaps the most challenging acting in the show as she grows from a spoiled princess into a dedicated and dutiful future queen.