John von Rhein
3:28 PM EST, January 6, 2013
The first and most obvious question to be asked of "The Second City Guide to the Opera" was: Was it funny enough to meet the expectations surrounding this unlikely match-up of Chicago's world-renowned comedy troupe and just as renowned opera company, Lyric Opera?
With extra chairs brought in to accommodate the overflow, the Civic Opera House was packed with warm bodies — 3,742 of them, according to a Lyric spokeswoman — some of them primed with wine and beer, all of them prepared to laugh their heads off throughout Saturday's two-hour show, the first collaboration between these august institutions.
A crack ensemble of nine performers — seven actors from Second City, along with two singers from Lyric's Ryan Opera Center — had the crowd whooping with laughter throughout the 18 or so sketches and musical numbers that made up this smoothly-paced revue. Everybody, right down to the six musicians tucked away at the sides of the stage — which had been decorated with design elements from several recent Lyric mainstage productions — looked to be having a great time.
Nobody wins if you ridicule opera in the process of tweaking its conventions, so sustaining the proper tone was crucial. Fortunately, a smart script and the manic exuberance of the cast roasted the sacred cows of opera with a light yet loving touch that was friendly to the veterans as well as neophytes in attendance.
Of course, the cavernous Ardis Krainik Theatre is roughly 30 times larger than any of the cabaret venues Second Cityers are used to playing. Fortunately, two large video screens placed at either side of the proscenium helped keep the throng fully engaged in the comedic action.
Soprano Renee Fleming, Lyric's creative consultant and one of the show's co-hosts along with Shakespearean actor and "Star Trek: The Next Generation" star Patrick Stewart, got the idea for Saturday's one-off musical revue a while back when she caught a Second City sketch that happened to incorporate one of her recordings.
Since one of the diva's crusades is, as she put it in a program note, bringing "the gospel of opera to the unsaved," she thought a nifty way to do that would be a Lyric-sponsored show in which opera dropped its more-highbrow-than-thou pretensions long enough to poke fun at itself. If the show pulled in enough folks who had never been to the opera before — and intrigued them enough to make them want to come back for the real thing — so much the better for everyone.
Lyric reports that about a quarter of the ticket-buyers who sold out "The Second City Guide to the Opera" are totally new to the company, so this latest wrinkle in the company's community outreach campaign, Lyric Unlimited, would seem to justify Fleming's faith in this venture.
The script — by Kate James, Timothy Sniffen and musical director Jesse Case — had been worked and reworked in a series of public tryouts at the UP Comedy Club and elsewhere. The refining process showed: Belly laughs flowed as readily as naughty vulgarities, the likes of which have seldom if ever been uttered on this venerable stage.
Smartly paced by director Billy Bungeroth and deliciously played by Second City stalwarts Carisa Barreca, Joey Bland, Ross Bryant, Beth Melewski, Tawny Newsome and Sniffen — joined by the Ryan Center's J'nai Bridges and Bernard Holcomb, capable singing comedians both — the show betrayed only a couple of clunkers.
The busy Fleming was given relatively little to do, almost all of it requiring her to send up her Glam Diva image. She turned up as a bit player in a so-so skit about a master class given by a monstrous uber-diva (played by Melewski) who demolished her students with withering insults. She put in two singing appearances, of which Gershwin's "Summertime," swaddled in a silken jazz arrangement, came off far better than her tenuous Puccini "Un bel di."
Stewart also took minor bits in several numbers, including an amusing series of backstage encounters with Second City cast members during which he sniffed that "this high art thing" was not for him. He got off the best line of the evening right at the outset when he declared, "Ah, opera, where beauty is created for old people to sleep through."
The show's second half was funnier and better-paced than the first. Sniffen got the comic momentum going as a woebegone trombonist from the Lyric Orchestra who would stave off boredom during the fourth acts of operas by ordering pizza. He returned later for a hilarious sketch about a young couple meeting on a blind date at Lyric, where they shared an opera box for what was to be an uninterrupted, 15-hour performance of Wagner's "Ring" cycle. "If we can make it through this, we can make it through anything," his ardent aromatherapist declared to Newsome's wary cardiac surgeon.
Bryant also nailed big laughs as music theorist/composer Arnold Schoenberg, trying out a hopelessly esoteric stand-up routine before a baffled (invisible) audience. "Call me Radames — I'm getting buried alive here," he cried, drowning in flop-sweat. A skit about an American boy (Bland) visiting Italy whose romance with an Italian girl (Bridges) was hampered by their inability to speak, or sing, each other's language turned out to be poignantly funny. These two performers were a delight together.
In a sketch that had nothing to do with opera but displayed the amazing improv skills of the Second City performers, personal information gleaned from an audience member identified only as "Joe" inspired an uproarious, mock-Shakespearean scene in which Stewart got to play a hunchback-turned-long-lost-brother. (You had to be there.)
The revue wrapped up with a reprise of a number heard earlier in the evening, in which the entire ensemble gathered for what in effect was a singing commercial for Lyric. "Let's go to Opera Land," they twittered, as a "La Boheme"-style snowfall descended softly on the stage.
It remains to be seen whether one-nighters such as Saturday's ultimately succeed in building new audiences for Lyric or merely build public demand for more such satirical gigs. But you gotta admire the try-anything pluck behind this effort, and commend Second City for pitching in so wholeheartedly as well.
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