2022 Houston Christmas Theater, Part III

For a joyous ride, check out The Elixir of Love at Opera in the Heights — especially the translations in '50s pop music.
For a joyous ride, check out The Elixir of Love at Opera in the Heights — especially the translations in '50s pop music. Photo by Kinjo Yonemoto

Joy to the World

Any opera libretto that uses “Be-bop-a-lula, I don't mean maybe” or “Hit the road, Jack,” is all right with me. That this particular opera is Gaetano Donizetti's sparkling comic opera The Elixir of Love (1843) is fresher still. That this production is perhaps the finest work from Opera in the Heights in seasons is beyond compare – it's out of this world.

Setting Elixir in the '50s isn't a new idea, other opera companies have done so over the years, but this version via the acclaimed Pacific Opera Project seems brand new. It positively dances with joy and lightness. When the company begins to twist again like we did last summer, or does the frug, or the stroll, what a rapture.

What sets this production apart is the libretto by director Josh Shaw, who supplants the English translation of the original Italian with '50s pop lyrics, as many as he can. It's surprising how apt they can be. When hero Nemorino sings of his frustration in love, what's better than a little bit of “Heartbreak Hotel” to enhance Donizetti's aching musical line.

Set in a diner with its essential checkerboard linoleum, which is itself set within a huge jukebox whose lights ring Lambert Hall's proscenium, Elixir is imbued with youth and gaiety and plenty of teen spirit. What heartbreak could last long in a place like this? When officer Belcore enters like a rock star and transfixes the girls at the soda counter who swoon over his looks and moves, we're in a very fun space in the staid world of opera.

So, soda jerk Nemorino (tenor Hayden Smith) loves town beauty Adina (soprano Oriana Falla), who plays hard to get. Desperate to win her after Belcore (baritone Aaron J. Keeney) puts the make on her, he buys what he thinks is a love potion from traveling snake oil salesman Dr. Dulcamara (bass Byron J. Mayes). What he buys is cheap booze. After he drinks the first bottle he needs more, but is out of money. At Belcore's insistence, he signs up for the army and receives $20.

What makes the girls flock to him isn't the cheap wine, but because they find out Nemorino, unbeknownst to him, has inherited a fortune from his uncle. Adina strings him along as far as she can, but when she discovers he's joining the army and going away, she relents, gets back the contract, and declares her love. End of comic opera.

Donizetti fills the slightness with his considerable finesse: patter songs for the oily doctor, lilting romanzas for Nemorino, coloratura for Adina, and plenty of spun-sugar choral work. One of the rep's masterworks, the opera floats on the music. Buoyed by irrepressible melody and unending charm, the delightful production skips along, blithe and nimble. By any measure the singers are outstanding, youth personified, yet commanding and solid.

Smith's burnished tenor is blessed with technique and glorious phrasing. He gets the opera's most famous aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” (“One subtle tear”), a touchstone for any tenor. He puts a coin in the jukebox, and the harp arpeggio begins. It's pure romance, smooth and languid, as Nemorino realizes that, just perhaps, Adina has feelings for him. His rendition was flawless, rivaling the best, from Pavarotti to Domingo, and, yes, even Caruso, who burst into stardom after singing the part under Toscanini at La Scala in 1901. Currently a master's student in Vocal Production at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, I don't know how much more he needs to learn. He's got it all – stage presence and that glorious voice.

Equaling him is Falla as Adina. What a voice, again rich and vibrant, with an effortless ability to scale Donizetti's complex bel canto. She's a veteran of Pacific Opera Project's Elixir last season, and she, too, is destined to become a star. She's a looker, too, in her A-line dresses and red-and-cream patent shoes, with hair pulled back in soft pony tail. She'd turn heads in any era.

Baritone Keeney, another POP alumnus, is picture perfect as strutting Belcore, and he, too, navigates his patter coloratura with ease and charm. Baritone Mayes has a swell time as Dulcamara, boogeying with the best of them in what looks like gold lame sharkskin. His voice, thick and sonorous, decks the hall. In the small role of Giannetta, soprano Siwei Zhang brings a robust lilt and heft. Her Donna Anna from University of Houston Moore's Opera Center's alfresco Don Giovanni in 2020 still rings in memory. Her gifts remain undiminished.

The chorus, an undisputed part of Elixir as they play the townsfolk who gossip, rejoice, and comment on the action, is vital to Donizetti. Under maestro Eiki Isomura, they coalesced into a jitter-bugging parade, sounding fresh and lean. The orchestra bounced right along with them.

Elixir of Love isn't Christmas, but it possesses all its goodness of spirit and love of life. If you've been Scrooged, or Sugarplummed, or even Messiahed-out, give this sparkler a look. It's a present that gleams all by itself. No batteries required. What a marvelous gift from Opera in the Heights.

The Elixir of Love continues at 7:30pm Friday, December 9; 2 p.m. Sunday, December 11at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For more information, call 713-861-5303 or visit $42.50 – $87.50.

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Panto Snow White and the Seven Dorks at Stages is cute and savvy.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Internet Trolling

Stages continues its annual Christmas panto tradition with Adam Howard's world premiere Panto Snow White and the Seven Dorks. Thank Santa it's not an ugly sweater like some of their prior editions. This is cute and savvy, again using pop tunes with refurbished lyrics. The only one I recognized was Madonna's “Material Girl,” morphed into “Social Media Girl.” To be perfectly frank, I couldn't tell if a song is from Beyonce or Billie Eilish.

We're in techno-land, where Snow (Macy Herrera, glittering with full pop-star voice) is an internet sensation, blogging and videoing her way to fame and fortune. Evil Queen stepmom Karen (Amanda Parker, diva-licious in aubergine feathers) is not amused when her magic mirror (Jonathan Everbaugh, with his own queenly snap) tells her that her influencing days are over. The likes have gone to Snow. Karen bullies the Huntsman (Genevieve Allenbury, a veteran of all Stages' pantos past) into killing her rival. Looking like a goth rocker – Bowie maybe? – she whisks Snow into the woods where the trolls of the dark web lurk, those Seven Dorks. They admit the newbie into their lair where they proceed to spam the evil one, hacking into the magic mirror to cancel her.

The evening's saved in part by the spirited dance numbers, choreographed by Harrison Guy from Urban Souls Dance Company; the never-stop direction of Kenn McLaughlin; the raise-the-rafters singing by the talented cast; the cool quartet of Jonathan Craft (keyboard), Steven Jones (keyboard), Alan Richards (guitar), and Jack Westmoreland (drums); and the techno trickery of video designer Bat Peter Ton. It's an eyeful. Oh, and the Bunny (Aaron Ruiz under those ears) is adorable.

The real energizer bunny, though, is Ryan Schabach, in his return as Buttons, the Queen's IT man. He never fails, improving with the audience, playing to the kids, or running in overdrive. He's a constant fount of stage presence. The dorks are: Rayevin Johnson (Webby), Camryn Nunley (Codey), Larie Rodriguez (Spammy), Alex Salah (Ransom), Lloyd Wayne Taylor (Crypto). They sing and dance, prance and shout, and keep this musical going.

Leah Smith's costumes are over-the-top, but in a good way. Snow's always in her signature Disney color scheme of blue and yellow with red hair band. Insueng Park's set is techo heaven, with screens abuzz with green cursors; and the magic mirror has a life of its own, careening about the stage on its own steam.

This is fun show for the kiddies, and even the adults will like the contemporary spin and the jokes too hoary for the little ones. It has speed and juice, new-agey bells and whistles, and seems very now and with-it. It might sing a Lady Gaga tune, but I wouldn't know it. I laughed at the bunny, though.

Panto Show White and the Seven Dorks continues through December 24 at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Stages, 800 Rosine. For more information, call 713-527-0123 or visit $30-$84.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover