WOOSTER, Ohio - Ohio Light Opera (OLO) opened the fifth show in its seven-show lineup — the Gershwin brothers’ "Lady, Be Good!" — to a packed house at The College of Wooster’s Freedlander Theatre on July 10.
Homelessness launches the story and drives the plot. But forget the pathos and honest portrayal of poverty reflected in George and Ira Gershwin’s better known “Porgy and Bess.” In this story, being down on your luck means living on the streets in a beautiful little bedroom suite. Need to go to a party? An aqua chiffon dancing dress is conveniently stored behind a screen in your outdoor bedroom.
The story begins with the plight of brother and sister Dick and Susie, played with humorous appeal by Nathan Brian and Natalie Ballenger. Okay, so Dick’s ongoing hackneyed jokes are dumb. (Did he really say “I want to hit my head against the wall because it feels so good when I stop?”) But story and dialogue are not the centerpieces of this musical. In fact, when brother and sister team Fred and Adele Astaire, for whom George Gershwin wrote the musical in 1924, first saw the script, they pronounced it “pretty stupid.” But the power of the music and the promise of the dance convinced them.
Eighty-nine years later, it’s still convincing us. A few particular scenes stand out. The action in Act I takes place on the sidewalk of a New England town. The rose-brick houses (a set beautifully designed by Murdock Lewis) harmonize with the rose-toned gossamer gowns of the flapper-set and sparkly little pin-up poufs of the salesgirls (created by the College’s Charlene Gross). Onto this gorgeous scene stroll the ensemble that brings us one of Gershwin’s most enduring tunes, “Fascinating Rhythm.”
The rhythm that Gershwin found so fascinating is syncopation. (Brother Ira writes “There’s no sensation like syncopation. .. feels like dissipation”). The vocalists and the orchestra, under the direction of Steven Byess, nail the sensation with their finely tuned delivery of Gershwin’s distinctive jazzy blues. Joining Ballenger and Brian are Sarah Best, and newcomer Gregory LaMontagne, whose perfect tenor opening makes us hope we see more of him at Wooster.
“Fascinating Rhythm” has become an American favorite, recorded by more than 70 of America’s greatest recording artists from a wide range of styles—from Judy Garland, to The Carpenters, to Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Petula Clark, and Selena Jones.
Memorable scenes follow in Act II on an Art Deco set, created in shades of silver and lavender, with costumes to match. “The Half of It, Dearie, Blues,” and “I’d Rather Charleston” shows off the choreography of Carol Hageman, who pays light-hearted homage to the Astaires. The set, choreography, and the orchestra’s brilliant performance, including a lick straight out of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (written in the same year), remind us what this musical is about: Great music and visual beauty.
All vocalists are up to the high standards of OLO, but none more so than tenor Christopher Nelson, playing Jack Robinson — hobo turned leading man.
The last bow was made and the last chord ended, but the evening wasn’t over. Executive director Laura Neill asked the audience to remain in the seats until a tornado watch had concluded. A good-natured postlude of audience patter followed, and the woman sitting next to me asked me if I’d enjoyed the show. “Oh, yes,” I said. “And does the dialogue seem a little corny to you?” she asked. I nodded emphatically. “But that’s what I love,” she said happily. “The corniness. I just love the corniness.”
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