The Merry Widow

February 17, 2011
REVIEW by Chicago Theater
Scotty Zacher

Content
The Merry Widow    Written by Franz Lehar, adapted by John Lanchberry
Choreographed by Ronald Hynd
Conducted by Scott Speck
at Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $24-$145  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

70 years after Franz Lehar’s beloved operetta debuted in 1905, Ronald Hynd transformed the popular gem into an energetic ballet. Now, 36 years later, the 80-year-old choreographer has brought this polyglot divertissement to Chicago in a sumptuous, two-hour fantasy that takes the Joffrey Ballet into wonderful new waters.

Though the original vaudevillian and rhapsodic tunes get mixed up among the three acts and the subplot involving an incriminating fan has been mercifully dropped, the story mirrors the original in all that matters. Cultural contrast was always the fuel for the fun. Here it’s the fact that the Pontevedran embassy in Paris needs to hold onto the fortune of the title character, if only to preserve its quaint customs and Balkan folk dances in the midst of the world’s most cosmopolitan center.

Three styles keep both operetta and ballet fascinating throughout. The Embassy ball in the first act harks back to the classic waltzes of Vienna. The Second, set in the villa of the fabulously wealthy Hannah Glawari, delights in pseudo-Pontevedran Polonaises and ethnic novelty numbers. Finally, Lehar drenches the third act in French frivolity as the action moves to Maxim’s, with its can-can grizettes and dapper Parisian dandies straight out of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Since this is ballet, the story, compressed and created by Sir Robert Helpmann, is second to the steps. Unlike the operetta, there’s never any doubt that Hanna will return to her rakish former lover, Count Danilo. (We don’t need to burden our pretty little heads with silly doubts.) There’s little more suspense over the illicit courtship between Valencienne, the Ambassador’s flirtatious French wife, and the handsome French attaché Camille de Rousillon, a nightingale indeed.

The duets between these couples echo the musical styles. Victoria Jaiani’s Hana and Miguel Angel Blanco’s Danilo turn the first act waltzes into surprisingly vertical affairs, with lifts that defy the horizontal swirl of the sweeping melodies. Likewise, Yumelia Garcia’s capricious Valencienne, with her sensuous twirls and bodice-bending dips, finds a perfect partner in Graham Maverick’s quicksiliver, gravity-defying Rousillon. Both blend in beautifully with the galloping gaiety of Maxim’s in full fluorescence.

Hynd has given the ensemble glorious moments, whether as gallant members of the Pontevedran entourage or hellbent, high-kicking, skirt-tossing soubrettes making plays for the gentry. They’re impeccably costumed by Italian designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno, while the stenciled facades and imitation marble pillars of the first act, wisteria-laden garden of the second, and monumental cabaret setting of the third act, are also the gorgeous work of the exquisitely talented Di Bagno.

It lasts no longer than it should, since a fantasy should never be pushed beyond its initial allure. As the English say, you should never let daylight shine on magic.