Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Sunday April 15, 2012 4:40PMCDT
Sergei (Dominic Armstrong) drives future tenants (from left: Emily Fons, Paul LaRosa, Adrian Kramer, Sara Heaton, Paul Scholten) to a housing construction site in Moscow, Cheromushki.
Winsome, handsome COT singers sell satire by that wacky Shostakovich
◆ Three more performances through April 25
◆ Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph Drive, Chicago
◆ (312) 704-8414; ChicagoOperaTheater.org
BY ANDREW PATNER
It’s the year for shockingly good operetta in Chicago. Lyric Opera of Chicago recently offered a sparkling Show Boat that showed why the early American musical theatre has a place in the opera house. And now Chicago Opera Theater is giving the local première of a constantly tuneful, utterly charming, frequently insightful, and laugh-out-loud hilarious musical comedy, Moscow, Cheromushki (Moscow, Bird Cherry Towers) by, of all people, Dmitri Shostakovich.
Yes, that Shostakovich, the often mournful composer born into Russian revolutionary turmoil, a teenager under Lenin, survivor of Stalin, who somehow made it into the gloriously inglorious Brezhnev era. Between shotgun-commissioned hymns to the people, war symphonies, and songs and dances of death, it turns out that Shostakovich was a devotée of cabaret and operetta -- we already knew that he had a soft spot for jazz and Tin Pan Alley -- ducking out of his studio for weekly doses of singing dames and gents and big Franz Lehár-sized, job-providing orchestras.
In 1958, during the relative thaw of the Khrushchev era, he wrote a show of his own, enlisting veteran -- and careful -- Soviet satirists Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky for book and lyrics and packing it full of numbers from bright and cheery to acid-cutting with nary a dud among them. All of Shostakovich’s technical and magpie abilities are here but put at the service of a wholly different field in which, with a less capricious state and easier cultural exchange, he also could have been a contender.
At a time when young people in even the world’s wealthiest country are having economic trouble leaving the nest, an Oklahoma!-like celebration of potential apartments in new, suburban, concrete public housing developments can ring many a jazzy and coosome bell. And that master caster Brian Dickie, launching his 13th and final Chicago Opera Theater season with his 23rd (!) area première, has filled the stage with youthful singers as great to look at as they are to hear -- and who can dance, too! With resident conductor Alexander Platt, responsible for key triumphs of the Dickie era, returning to lead the 14-piece band -- onstage at least on opening night Saturday due to a busted pit elevator -- and a production team that must wake up smiling every day, this three-hour evening is a winner from start to finish.
Lyric’s Ryan Center members and alumni make up much of the cast roster along with those from other international programs. In her U.S. operatic début, heart-grabbing soprano Sophie Gordeladze of ex-Soviet Georgia provides additional authenticity as the plot-framing crane-operator Lusya, voice and advocate of “the Collective Will” of the ragtag group of apartment builders and seekers. Homeless newlyweds Masha and Sasha are animated by mezzo Emily Fons and Canadian baritone Adrian Kramer, both as sexy as they are musically gifted.
Paul LaRosa is the second of the male Cheryomushki singers singled out by the “Barihunks” opera fan website and, as Boris, the fellow on the make who proves to have a big heart in the end, is a perfect match to soprano Sarah Heaton’s Lidochka, the museum guide who can also swing. When the two tackled Shostakovich’s ode to young love and nascent rock ’n’ roll they, and Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography, literally stopped the show. Tenor Dominic Armstrong is the AWOL chauffeur and sweet wooer of Lusya, baritone Paul Scholten is wholly convincing as Lidochka’s father who can’t imagine leaving his old neighborhood for a sterile tower, and former COT Young Artist Ashleigh Semkiw vamps vampily as Vava the Vamp.
Bass-baritone Paul Corona and bass Matt Boehler (the third designated “Barihunk” along with Kramer and LaRosa) are hilarious in their you-love-to-hate-them roles as the building’s super, Barabashkin, and Drebednyov, the bureaucrat who can make apartments -- and himself -- “disappear,” respectively. A shame that Shostakovich did not give Drebednyov a Damn Yankees “Those Were the Good Old Days”-style solo number; the purple-suited Boehler has more than the chops to pull one off.
Errol Girdlestone has prepared a top-notch 12-member chorus of COT/Roosevelt University Young Artists, and Todd Rhoades leads a five-member dance corps that brings more than a bit of MGM to the Harris Theater. Anya Klepikov’s sets and costumes light up the sky, literally, along with Julian Pike’s lighting. Débuting director Mike Donahue and librettist/translator Meg Miroshnik know how to bring this Soviet satire smack into the here and now. (There are effective supertitles as well.) And Platt’s alternately impassioned and lilting leadership of Gerard McBurney’s band reduction of the score just makes you wish that Shostakovich had written more in this genre -- Russian and Jewish folk songs, genuinely fine ballads, and a master’s understanding of how to move the story along power the steady success here of “the Collective Will.”