Wednesday, February 21, 2024


 Matthew Wages,  Alexa Devlin and. Ryan Allais
(photo by meche kroop)

We have no idea who was the intended audience for Victor Herbert's turn-of-the-20th c. hit musical Babes in Toyland nor are we experts in what is suitable for children these days.  All we can say is that we spent a most delightful hour with VHRPLive! which, regular readers will know, stands for Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live. We wish that this magical musical hour  had gone on longer!

Let us mention that there is nothing "naughty" that is unsuitable for children and, if you have any, it might be fun to bring them along. Of course, today's children are accustomed to snark and smarm so we dare not predict the extent of their interest.  But for those of us of the adult persuasion, it is very refreshing to watch a work so charming and innocent, played without a shred of condescension. What fun to awaken the child in oneself!

The main attraction is Mr. Herbert's memorable melodies. Contemporary composers could use a lesson from the prolific Mr. Herbert who penned enough operettas to keep VHRPLive! (celebrating its tenth anniversary) going for at least another decade. When is the last time you left a theater smiling and humming? We want to give credit to the late Dino Anagnost for compiling the score some three decades ago.

What is also quite wonderful is the manner in which Founder and Artistic Director Alyce Mott has revised the libretto to bring the story to its charming peak, as she usually does. Furthermore she has tinkered with Glen MacDonough's lyrics to great advantage, with contributions from Craig Timberlake and Mr. Anagnost.  We take umbrage when an opera director alters the original intent and setting of our beloved classic tragedies such that they make no sense. This is a completely different "story", so to speak. We sincerely believe that if Mr. Herbert had been in the audience he would have shared our delight.

The "book" is nothing like Pixar's film Toy Story. The characters are not toys, they are nursery rhyme characters that most of us recall from childhood. Here they are all assembled in an imaginary place called Toyland, under the supervisory eye of Mother Goose, portrayed by mezzo-soprano Alexa Devlin who was costumed exactly as we might have imagined her (no credit for costuming in the program).  Her warm sound introduced us to "Toyland" which is probably one of Herbert's more familiar songs.

The romantic couple comprised BoPeep andTom, Tom, the Piper's Son. Soprano Joanie Brittingham, a VHRPL regular, was adorable in the role which had her being both tearful and fearful, as she searched for her missing sheep. New to the company is tenor Ryan Allais as Tom, as wonderful a romantic lead as we could have hoped for. His singing and dancing were completely on point and we don't mean on point shoes!

The villain of the piece was an almost unrecognizable Matthew Wages whose mellow baritone was twisted into a nasty snarl as he portrayed Silas Barnaby, waving a foreclosing mortgage that threatens to put an end to Toyland. He was accompanied by two henchmen, the brainy Rodrigo, played by tenor Chaz Peacock and the brawny Gonzorgo, played by tenor Andrew Buck. 

Mr. Barnaby wants to marry BoPeep but...(we are not going to give away the plot but we were thinking of the last act of Falstaff).  Does the villain twirl his mustache?  Does he get his just desserts? You are going to have to find out for yourself. We hope you can snag tickets for the two remaining performances and you can thank us later.

You will enjoy the company of Humpty Dumpty (mezzo-soprano Sarah Bleasdale, Wee Willie (baritone Keith Broughton), Mary Mary Quite Contrary, doubling as a gorgeous butterfly  (soprano Gabriella Giangreco), Little Miss Muffet (Maggie Langhorne), tenor Joe Marx and soprano Kathleen Raab (both making their debuts with the company) as Jack and Jill, soprano Mariah Mueller as Curly Locks, baritone Zachary Wobensmith as Simple Simon, tenor Matthew Youngblood as Little Boy Blue, and the familiar veteran baritone David Seatter as Old King Cole. Mr. Seatter is a founding artist of the company and has never missed a performance. We always await his presence with anticipation.

As far as the music is concerned we delighted in the live orchestra under the baton of Maestro Michael Thomas. We might add that The Theatre at St. Jean's is a rare find, a mid-sized theatre with an orchestra pit and raked seating. Everyone gets an unobstructed view and perfect sound. There is some voluntary audience participation in the finale and if you want to participate, learn the words to "Toyland". In terms of clever lyrics, we were particularly fond of "I Can't Do the Sum".

The choreography by Christine Hall was simple and stylish, adding a great deal of interest, as did the colorful but uncredited costuming. 

© meche kroop

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