By Bryson David Hoff
To a canny local theatergoer, storefront theatre is as Chicagoan as deep-dish pizza and Italian beef. Both straight plays and musicals are commonly performed in stripped-down, 50-seat theatres all across the city.
But opera is a different story. Though there is a long history of “chamber opera,” meant for intimate spaces, opera patrons in Chicago are served almost entirely by larger, more conventional venues. The chance to experience a more intimate and accessible form of this performance style is reason enough to recommend ColorBox Theatre’s High Fidelity.
Billing itself as an “operatic farce,” composer Philip Seward’s four-handed operetta combines the plots of Anton Chekov’s The Boor and George Bernard Shaw’s How He Lied to Her Husband. Aurora Wentworth (Ashley Rose Larkin) has recently been widowed, putting her in the sights of creditor Theodore Bumpass (Joseph Canuto Leon) who had loaned her late husband a considerable sum and now looks to collect. Their mounting tension resolves itself into a hasty marriage in old-fashioned light-comedy fashion.
The second act sees this marriage tested, as a love quadrilateral develops between the new couple, Bumpass’s ward Henry Apjohn (Dennis Kalup), who attempts to start a love affair with the new Mrs. Bumpass while assigned to escort her about town while her husband attends to business, and Aurora’s cousin Georgina (Antoinette Konow), who is desperate for a husband and is dead set on Henry. The situation escalates with each of the various parties trying to turn things to their favor, all building up to the standard romantic comedy ending.
One of the remarkable things about this premiere work is how well it adheres to the tropes of the light operetta genre of the 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no meta-theatricality, no winks to the audience in Seward and co-writer Joan Mazzonelli’s libretto drawing attention to the gap between the setting of the piece and the time period of its composition. The closest it comes is a recurring joke about the operatic convention of ignoring performer age in casting decisions. In short, if one didn’t know, it would be very easy to assume that High Fidelity was written a hundred years ago. However, that tongue-in-cheek earnestness is greatly to its benefit, creating an atmosphere of old-school charm rather than modern cynicism.
“Charm” might, in fact, be the best way to describe the production. Rather than the broad comedy common in Grand Opera houses, the black box staging allows director Kurt Konow to draw comedy out of small, organic character moments, a subtlety not often allowed by the demands of a larger space. His cast is game and gifted with this type of comedy, particularly Larkin, who is a veritable master of the sidelong glance. Though billed as a farce, the style of comedy is closer to an Oscar Wilde comedy of manners, which forms an unlikely synergy with the larger-than-life sound of operatic music.
The score is warm and tuneful and, like the libretto, very evocative of the sound of the time period. The singers are all well suited to the score and once one grows used to hearing such sonorous vocals in so small a space the musicianship shines splendidly. Music Director Michelle Konow proves as adept as her husband at using inflection and intonation to create nuanced character moments.
If there is a criticism to be made, the adherence of the piece to the trappings of comedic operetta does lead a bit of thinness in plot. The connective tissue between the sections based off the two plays makes for a bit of an odd plot structure. Audience members without an affinity for the style are unlikely to have their opinions swayed by this new work. However plot is always secondary in opera and, by way of comparison, Cosi fan tutte, which the program notes site as an influence, has much larger plot issues than High Fidelty and is deservedly considered a part of the operatic canon.
The question is not whether the issue of plotting would keep an audience member from enjoying High Fidelity in particular, but rather whether the issue of plotting would keep an audience member from enjoying light opera in general. If the answer is no, then this quirky little operetta is likely to amuse and entertain.
ColorBox Theatre presents “High Fidelity” through September 3 at the Royal George Theatre 1641 N Halsted Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.