Kurt Weill: One touch of Venus
Ron Li-Paz (Whitelaw Savory), Christianne Tisdale (Molly Grant), Eric Roberts (Taxi Black/Dr Roberts), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Stanley), Karen Coker (Venus), Loren Geeting (Rodney Hatch), Jessica Walker (Gloria Kramer), Carole Wilson (Mrs Kramer), Adrian Clarke (Zuvetli)
James Holmes (conductor), Tim Albery (director)
Opera North Chorus and Orchestra
Opera North has long included musicals in its repertoire but maintained its cachet as an opera company by doing the best: Candide and Sweeney Todd are arguably masterpieces however they are classified. Kurt Weill's One touch of Venus, with book and lyrics by S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash, was successful in its original run in 1943 but has rarely been revived since. Nevertheless, it has considerable claims to greatness, even if they are far from operatic. A screwball tale of the goddess Venus brought to life in 1943 New York, it combines Perelman's Marxian comedy, Nash's ordinary language wit and humour and Weill's delightful, knowing take on popular music in an energetic escapade that celebrates lust, love and domesticity and pokes cultural pretension in the eye.
One reason that revivals have been rare may be the difficulty in casting the role of Venus. In the movie, which shed all of the songs except "Sing low", and all of the filth, it was Ava Gardner, a tough peplum to fill. Finding someone who can also deliver the songs and dance in tall ballets is a tall order -- Ute Lemper springs to mind, but she would be well beyond Opera North's budget. Karen Coker, whose track record is mainly in opera, looked sublime in a forties film-star way and had the right animal spirit, but she was visibly semaphoring the intricacies of "I'm a stranger here myself" with gestures of her hands and head rather than expressing them with her voice. Still, she was terrific to watch and funny, and she may well develop as the show tours in the spring. Christianne Tisdale (from a music theatre background) was almost ideal as Molly Grant, the Eve Arden role in the movie, the patient but clear-eyed PA of philandering art connoisseur Whitelaw Savory. This production had Molly in love with Savory throughout, which declawed her a bit, but Tisdale negotiated the sentiment and venom well.
Ron Li-Paz as Savory had a fine old-fashioned baritone -- think Enzo Pinza in South Pacific -- which somewhat undermined his slimy persona. Loren Geeting as Rodney Hatch, the barber who brings Venus' statue to life and with whom she falls in love, was impeccably nebbish and well on top of the comedy and his songs. A supporting cast of British singers got the idiom pretty well, bar the odd odd accent. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts was splendid as Stanley, the private eye's obtuse sidekick, and Carole Wilson and Jessica Walker screeched for the Bronx as the harridan Mrs Kramer and her daughter Gloria, Rodney's fiancée.
The high points of Tim Albery's production, though, and indeed of the work, are the set pieces. They are apparently irrelevant and completely spectacular: an extravaganza about the wild west of New Jersey, when cowboys and saloon girls erupt into the waiting room at the bus station; the macabre ballad "Dr Crippen", with luridly coloured Crippen, Mrs Crippen and Ethel Le Neve and creepy skeletons; and the musically complex but strangely Marxian "Catch Hatch", which piled up groups of singers (including the wild westerers and skeletons) in pursuit of Rodney Hatch, suspected of stealing the statue and murdering Gloria. The ballets were comparatively decorous and dull, but attractively done.
The sets were witty adaptation of appropriate works of art (Hopper's bar, Georgia O'Keefe's view of the East River, a TinTin cartoon for the prison in which Rodney and Venus inevitably end up).
James Holmes and the Opera North orchestra would have been at home on Broadway. If this wasn't the Platonic performance of One touch of Venus, it was utterly enjoyable and provided proof, if any is needed, that the show is a masterpiece of music theatre and should come to the South Bank or the West End as soon as Ute Lemper is available.