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Sweet Treat 

Franz Lehar's classic musical confection The Merry Widow took the world by storm in the decade following its 1905 opening in Vienna. There is something quintessentially Hapsburgian in the operetta's mixture of lighthearted cynicism and moist-eyed romance. Maybe, in this age of crotch-rubbing rock stars and relentless in-your-face, media-driven vulgarity, we are ready for moonbeams and monarchies -- even with an aftertaste of kitsch.

At any rate, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society recently took up the challenge with remarkable aplomb, creating a delightful comic world, punctuated by soaring moments of song. I have no doubt the Marsovian ambassador was in the Green Room after the final curtain, passing out medals of honor to all concerned (and pinching those charming grisettes on their dimples).

The play begins in the Marsovian embassy in Paris. The kingdom of Marsovia has racked up a huge national debt, most of which is owed to a deceased financier named Glawari. Hannah, his young, beautiful widow, has inherited both his fortune and the loans on the Marsovian treasury. It is imperative to the monarchy that she marry a Marsovian, so that the debt will not pass into foreign hands.

The man entrusted with courting the widow and keeping all the French fortune hunters at bay is one Count Danilo, who is notorious for frittering away his nights with can-can dancers at Maxim's. Coincidentally, Danilo had been in love with Hannah years before. At that time, she was a simple country girl, far beneath Danilo's social station; she was also a habitué of Maxim's.

Nonetheless, Danilo had proposed to Hannah and, when his uncle the king objected, he had gone off to Vienna to confront him. Hannah misunderstood Danilo's departure and, in her despair, married the old, ailing financier -- an event Danilo learned of only after his return to Paris. The central love story of the play concerns these two and how they find their way back to each other, despite Danilo's wounded pride.

There are several subplots having to do with wifely flirtations. Then, in the big third act dance number, the ever-game Hannah joins the artistes for a rousing can-can number, and even -- at least in this intrepid production -- joins them in their finale of splits. Many of the famous songs are reprised, but like some sort of odd Moravian liqueur, they seem to get better with each repetition, so that in the end, you sort of waltz out of the theater, humming to yourself -- until a security guard looks at you cross-eyed and you remember you're in Metairie and acting strange.

Under Jayme McDaniel's direction, Nancy Ross (Hannah) and Christian Elser (Danilo) headed up a top-notch cast. Some of the duets and ensemble numbers were quite breathtaking. Jacqueline Thompson was a charming Valencienne, while Roderick George was effective as Vicomte Camille, her lover. Scott Sauber put in an inspired turn as Njeus, an inebriated underling.

A bow of the head and a smart, military click of the heels to Karen Miller (set), Trish McLain (costumes), Lynne Lawrence (choreography), the Komenka Dancers and, of course, His Excellency, the conductor, musical director and lord high everything else, Dennis Assaf.

Classics of a different stripe were also on the boards recently; Theatre Louisiane brought Amy Woodruff's multimedia amalgamation of Aeschylus and Euripides to The Core at the State Palace Theatre on Canal Street.

The Seven is about the unhappy "Royals" of Thebes. Oedipus' son Eteokles (Don Guillory) is ruling in Thebes. His exiled brother, Polynikes (John Tiliakos) has returned with a foreign army to enforce his claims on the throne. Their sisters, Antigone (Amy Woodruff) and Ismene (Joy Begnaud), want to prevent the disaster of war and its aftermath of rape, murder and pillage.

Greek drama is extremely difficult to do well. For one thing, the masks and buskins turned actors into living puppets, so that the archetypes of myth could come alive in a heightened reality. Woodruff, who also directed the piece, set herself an unusual task: She took Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes and Euripides The Phoenician Women, kneaded them together and formed a new work from that mass. In addition, she drew from various translations. The resulting language was a peculiar mixture of effective verse and strained poesy. But, all of it was delivered with such conviction that the weirdly vacillating language served as a kind of aural mask, distancing the action and allowing us to enter this dark, symbolically charged world.

Ultimately, this was not Greek drama at all, but an attempt to evoke for a contemporary audience the gravity and power of Greek drama. In this sense, The Seven was a fascinating experiment. The simple formality of the presentation held the audience spellbound from beginning to end -- no simple trick considering how archaic a world was being presented.

click to enlarge Nancy Ross was engaging as The Merry - Widow, heading a top-notch cast in JPAS' - recent mounting of the popular operetta.
  • Nancy Ross was engaging as The Merry Widow, heading a top-notch cast in JPAS' recent mounting of the popular operetta.


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