The Acting Dazzles in Houston Ballet's The Merry Widow

Houston Ballet Principals Jessica Collado and Chun Wai Chan as Hanna and Danilo in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow.
Houston Ballet Principals Jessica Collado and Chun Wai Chan as Hanna and Danilo in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Fun fact: Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow was commissioned in 1975 by the Australian Ballet and was so good, they refused to release the rights to the ballet for a decade. If you’re wondering if it’s really that good, look no further than the Wortham Center, and the current production mounted by the Houston Ballet.

Based on a popular 1905 operetta of the same name by Franz Lehar, The Merry Widow is set in France, but the real location you need to know is Pontevedro. It seems as though the recession has hit the fictional country, because they’re broke and it’s up to the good folks in the Pontevedrian Embassy to solve the problem. And an interesting idea they have, contingent on the so-called “Merry Widow,” Hanna Glawari, a Pontevedrian worth about 20 million francs and looking for a new husband. The men at the Embassy quickly decide that their First Secretary, Count Danilo, is the man for the job, because if Hanna marries a foreigner (they are in France after all), then the country loses all of her wealth. But – plot twist – the two already know each other. Years earlier, Hanna was but a peasant girl, and the two embarked on a romance, which was put to an end by Danilo’s parents. Well, girl grew up, married very well, and now the boy needs to marry her in order to save their country from economic ruin. Oh, how the tables turn.

One of the first things you’ll notice about The Merry Widow is that it is as much a test of acting as it is of dancing, and the Houston Ballet passes that test with flying colors. Oliver Halkowich is one comically harried man as the Ambassador’s secretary Njegus, who finds himself in the position of trying to get his country’s economy back in the green while protecting the Baron’s marriage and keeping Danilo sober. Baron Zeta is a doddering older gentleman with a bum leg that serves as a recurring joke for much of the production, but Christopher Coomer is able to imbue the character with such dignity with a simple tug at his vest and a grudgingly offered arm to his philandering wife in the third act. Coomer’s Baron has a front row seat as the show’s two couples dance parallel to one another, and as compelling as the four are, the subtle shifts Coomer embodies throughout – from heartbreak to acceptance to resignation – are just as moving.

click to enlarge Houston Ballet Principals Melody Mennite and Ian Casady as Valencienne and Camille with First Soloist Oliver Halkowich as Njegus in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR
Houston Ballet Principals Melody Mennite and Ian Casady as Valencienne and Camille with First Soloist Oliver Halkowich as Njegus in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Ian Casady’s Camille, the French Attache, and Melody Mennite’s Valencienne, the Baron’s French wife, are a pleasant surprise in terms of just how likable these two cheaters are. Camille and Valencienne’s first pas de deux twinkles with mischievousness, flirtatious flits and smooth lifts, and ultimately generates more goodwill than these two characters probably deserve. Their chemistry, however, is undeniable; their longing palpable.
Jessica Collado is commanding and graceful as Hanna. From the moment she enters the ball and descends the staircase to be surrounded by a group of men vying to catch her eye, it’s clear that Collado’s Hanna is not only in complete control, she’s enjoying it. The playful flicks of her fan, the pleased smile as she’s lifted by potential suitors, the coy way she pulls her hand away from them, preventing the stray kiss – it all makes it even more impressive when she sees Danilo and the façade breaks.

Chun Wai Chan is strapping, if drunkenly unsteady on his feet when we first meet the Pontevedrian First Secretary. As we soon see, however, at least he’s a funny, happy drunk. Though the first half of the first act is mostly Danilo intoxicated and trying his darnedest to stay that way, after reuniting with Hanna, Chan has the opportunity to stretch his acting chops a little further. Shock turns to a certain wistfulness. And we know he’s turned the corner when he – you guessed it – puts down the champagne. Chan and Collado share three particularly romantic pas de deux. The curtain falls on the first act to Chan dizzyingly spinning Collado to a hopeful, triumphant score played by the Houston Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Ermanno Florio. The second features a charming role reversal as they reunite. And in the third Chan, a powerful dancer in his own right, twirls and carries Collado across the stage.

Though the acting really takes center stage in The Merry Widow, you’ll certainly get your fill of lovely waltzes, and the folk dances in the second act and the can-can in the third are just as entertaining. Traditional Pontevedrian dance appears to be a lively affair, full of jumps, spins, and playful slaps to their dancers’ red boots, while the action at Chez Maxim boasts high kicks and splits.

The production also effective employs a bit of notable “freeze framing,” if you will, which not only highlights the comedic moments, but allows the audience to luxuriate in Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s scenic and costume designs.

Pink dominates the production, but that’s not a complaint. The Pontevedrian Embassy’s cavernous, pink-hued ante-room gives way to its ballroom, where large bronze-like statues holding candelabras flank a slightly too wobbly staircase that promises (and delivers) grand entrances. Hanna’s garden, with a gazebo at the center, shines under Randall G. Chiarelli’s lighting designs, which lend it an ethereal glow. That same wash of blue lights a foggy memory, that of Danilo as he remembers their pas de deux, a flashback that is sweet, innocent and feels like first love.

Guidi di Bagno’s costumes are equally splendid, from Hanna’s sparkly black showstopper in the first act to the Pontevedrian traditional garb displayed in the second which, like Hynd’s choreography, evokes an Eastern European flair.

As opulent as the designs for the ballroom and as playful as the clothes at Hanna’s Pontevedrian soiree are, the third act brings everything together. Chez Maxim, the Parisian eatery where the Pontevedrian go to dance and drown their economic sorrows in champagne, has room for everything from black tuxes with long tails for the men to the swishy orange dresses and feathery hats of the Can-Can Ladies. There’s also Hanna’s boa, which seems to have a life of its own. The bronze statues return, but the highlight is the Eiffel Tower backdrop, beautiful and gleaming gold behind the scene.

With gorgeous sets, lush costumes, and impressive performances – special mention also goes to Hayden Stark’s equally harried Maître D’, a couple of difficult patrons (Shaelynn Estrada and Gloria Benaglia), and Harper Watters (Kromov) and Aaron Daniel Sharratt (Prititch), who catch the eye and it’s not just because of their rich emerald and blue costumes – this Widow is one not to miss.

Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Through June 9. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit $25 to $200.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.