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THEATER REVIEW The Csardas Princess
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-07-17

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Playwright: Emmerich Kalman ( music ),

Hersh Glagov & Gerald Frantzen ( English libretto ). At: Folks Operetta @ Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: FolksOperetta.org; $40. Runs through: July 22

Emmerich Kalman ( 1882-1953 ) was arguably the last great composer of Viennese operetta, those musically-rich works of romantic fluff floating on three-quarters time that delighted audiences for nearly a century and were among the roots of American musical comedy. Kalman was artistic heir to Johann Strauss, Franz von Suppe, Franz Lehar and Karl Millocker, but Nazism cut Kalman's career short ( he was Jewish ).

It's rare nowadays to hear his music well-played, which is why this Folks Operetta production is such a particular delight: a large-cast show with a full traditional orchestra of 25 in a theater seating only 150! Very few Broadway shows these days have orchestras as large, let alone a show staged so intimately.

A huge hit in 1915 Vienna, The Csardas ( say "char-dash" ) Princess has a story that was nonsense then and is nonsense now, even in a new and modern English translation. Sylva ( Katherine Petersen ), a beautiful factory worker with a wonderful voice, loves Edwin ( Jonathan Zeng ), the upper-class son of the factory owner. After signing a marriage contract with her, Edwin bows to social-class pressures and blows her over until Sylva publicly reminds him of his nuptial commitment—very 19th-century, a romance across social classes. In addition, in the Dual Monarchy ( as Austria and Hungary once were ), Austrians regarded even Hungarian nobility as inferiors, let alone common folk like Sylva, nicknamed the Csardas Princess. There's also some racy and sexist ( today ) comic relief provided via Sylva and Edwin's wealthy friends Feri ( Bill Chamberlain ) and—especially—Boni ( towering William Roberts ).

But forget the story; it's all about the lush and wonderful music! With a Hungarian romantic lead, Kalman provided not only lilting waltzes but also Romani-influenced driving and whirling Hungarian melodies and rhythms, such as the csardas, a traditional Romani dance. It didn't hurt that Kalman himself was Hungarian-born. The big Folks Operetta orchestra takes us through the tantalizing score under conductor Mark A. Taylor, who wields a firm baton and has a lively sense of tempo.

The production is as lavish as it can be in a small space. Patti Roeder's costumes obviously are on a budget although they are colorful enough, while set designer Erich Luchen must make room for a large cast and orchestra and still provide three variations on a single basic set.

The voices range from good to very good under Taylor and director Gerald Frantzen ( also Folks Operetta artistic director ), but the acting ranges from a bit stiff to somewhat over-the-top, with Petersen, the best of the bunch, getting it just right. Nevertheless, even the overdone performers have charm, understanding that this material isn't too serious. Choreographer Emily Kleeman also adds dash and style, working well with mostly non-dancers.


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