Opera: “The Desert Song”
Company: Winter Opera Saint Louis
Venue: Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, 210 E. Monroe Ave.
Dates: Run concluded
Highlights: Winter Opera Saint Louis concluded its 2022-23 season with the area’s first performance of the badly aged “The Desert Song,” making the most of the creaky musical comedy with fine comic performances and delightful singing by its accomplished cast.
Story: Marnish General Birabeau is sent to the deserts of Sharahbat to quell an uprising led by the mysterious leader known as the Red Shadow. Birabeau’s unimpressive son, Pierre, is in reality none other than the Red Shadow, and is quite fond of the fetching Margo Bonvalet. Unfortunately for him, at least as far as Margo is concerned, she has her heart set on the dashing Red Shadow, even though she’s engaged to General Birabeau’s stolid subordinate, Captain Paul Fontaine.
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A reporter named Bennie Kidd stumbles upon the lair of the Red Shadow, where he is threatened with death by the Shadow’s allies, Ali Ben Ali and Sid El Kar. However, the Red Shadow orders Bennie to spy on the general instead. Meanwhile, Bennie continues to resist the overtures of his addle-brained secretary, Susan, as well as the advances of a Spanish temptress named Clementina, whose band of dancers is being held captive, kind of, at the Red Shadow’s hideout.
The sultry Azuri, who has been having a torrid fling with the slow-witted Fontaine, knows the Red Shadow’s secret identity, and threatens to reveal it to Margo unless Margo helps bring Azuri and Fontaine – whom Margo doesn’t love, anyway – together.
The Red Shadow kidnaps Margo, along with Bennie and Susan, so that he can make the romantic connection with Margo. When General Birabeau finds the Red Shadow’s location, he challenges the outlaw to a duel, but the Red Shadow, aka Pierre, refuses, not wishing to harm his father.
Eventually, much is revealed, General Birabeau learns that his son is not a milquetoast, but is rather a dashing young man who is able to muster the courage to proclaim his love for Margo, which Margo reciprocates. Paul gets the chance to reunite with Azuri, and Bennie, who doesn’t really care for the ladies, escapes the amorous clutches of both Susan and Clementina. All’s well that ends well.
Other info: “The Desert Song” was first performed in 1926. It’s an operetta featuring music by Sigmund Romberg and a libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel. It was performed a mind-boggling 11 times at The Muny from 1930 through 1966, then once more in 1979 and, finally, a concert version in 1996. Winter Opera general director and founder Gina Galati states in the program that Winter Opera’s version is the first performance in St. Louis in 27 years.
There’s a good reason for that. The original book for “The Desert Song,” while a hit on Broadway, where it ran for 465 performances, and had revivals in 1946 and 1973, is painfully dated now and not likely to hold the interest of modern audiences.
Winter Opera, though, utilizes a new book by playwright David Taylor Little, who also contributes the witty program synopsis as an entry in “intrepid” journalist Bennie Kidd’s dispatches from Sharahbat (changed from Morocco in the original). As Little describes it, Bennie is searching for the Durance Bulletin’s war correspondent, and Bennie – who never met a horse he liked – fills the audience in on the plot of “The Desert Song.” It’s a funny and clever way to give the patrons the basics of the story.
Little’s book may attempt to modernize the story, but does so with limited success. However, there was much to enjoy in the Winter Opera rendition, as both acting and singing were quite good throughout, thanks to stage director Jon Truitt and conductor Dario Salvi, respectively.
Truitt took advantage of the very nice set designed by Scott Loebl, which gave the suitable appearance of the Red Shadow’s desert lair, a two-story structure with sufficient doors on the bottom level, and a stairway leading to and from the second story which serves admirably for several comic scenes.
Salvi led the accomplished Winter Opera orchestra in a spirted and accomplished reading of Romberg’s melodious score, which was accentuated by a number of songs delightfully sung by the cast. Lauren Nash Silberstein’s lush soprano voice delivers Margo’s numbers, such as “Romance” and the title tune which she shares with baritone Colin Levin, who sings quite well when not changing outfits from Pierre to the Red Shadow on the run.
Cristina Bakhoum Sanchez as the lusty Clementina and Holly Janz as the bubblehead blonde Susan bring substantial comedy to the fore in their roles, as does Alexander Scheuermann as the less-than-valiant Bennie.
Gary Moss suitably plays the officious General Birabeau, Jason Mallory does well as the dullard Paul Fontaine and Kelsey Amanda makes for an alluring and scheming Azuri. Taylor Comstock demonstrates an impressive tenor voice as Sid El Kar on the opening piece, “High on a Hill,” “One Flower in Your Garden” and others, and Jacob Lassetter is splendid as the Arab leader, Ali Ben Ali.
Serving well in the supporting cast are Halstead Selby, Caitlin Haderer, Joel Rogier, Thomas Taylor, Jordan Wolk and Janelle Pierce. Colleen Michelson’s costumes suitably reflected the 1920s time and locale, Michael Sullivan’s lighting admirably supported the setting, Laura Skroska provided props and Jessica Dana added wigs and makeup, all of which enhanced the presentation.
The sold-out house on Sunday afternoon was treated to Romberg’s appealing music and some fine comic efforts in Little’s new libretto. That said, “The Desert Song” shows how much society has changed in the last century, and now serves more as a curio piece than a show that was vibrant once upon a time.