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THEATER My Night At Jacques' (An Offenbach Folly)
by MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
2003-10-22

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Playwright: music by Jacques Offenbach, English lyrics by Gregg Opelka, English libretto by Jack Helbig

At: Evanston Light Opera Works at the McGaw YMCA Child Care Center, 1420 Maple St. in Evanston Phone: (847) 869-6300; $24-$39

Runs through: Nov. 9

If Jacques Offenbach had never written anything but Gaîté Parisienne, he would still be popular. Even today, wherever a cancan is performed—whether by professional hoofers or drunk drag queens—the odds are it will be accompanied by HIS melody for that quaint fin-de-siécle dance. And how many Elvis Presley fans, hearing their hero warble 'Tonight Is So Right For Love,' recognized 'Belle Nuit' from The Tales Of Hoffman, an opera by—you guessed it—Offenbach?

Clearly Offenbach had a knack for crafting hit tunes. After leaving his post as musical director for the Comédie Française in 1855 to open his own theatre, the Bouffes Parisiens, he wrote more than 50 short musical sketches, replete with infectious can't-get-it-out-of-your-head ditties. And now, Gregg Opelka and Jack Helbig—neither of them strangers to La Belle Epoch, having collaborated earlier on a musical adaptation of Feydeau's A Flea In Her Ear—have re-fashioned two of these, 'Monsieur Choufleuri Restera Chez Lui Le 24 Janvier 1833' (translated 'Your Presence Requested') and 'L'Ile De Tulipatan' (The Island Of Tulipatan'), for Evanston's Light Opera Works.

Running a little over an hour apiece, these lighter-than-air confections feature reliable commedia-based plots: in the first, a struggling songwriter saves the day when the hired entertainment cancels mere hours before a party given by his sweetheart's social-climbing father. In the other, a boy raised as a girl and a girl raised as a boy fall in love with each other despite the machinations of their misguided parents. Both premises allow plenty of opportunity for Offenbach to lampoon the fashions of his day.

This audacity is shared by Opelka (himself lauded last season for his Piaf-parody, La Vie Ennui) who blithely rhymes 'mia figlia' and 'sex-appeal-a' at one point, and by Helbig, whose characters chide one another, 'You're so melodramatic! This isn't an opera, you know.' The young vocalists navigate their cadenza-laced score and Lara Teeter's ebullient choreography with playful exuberance. Most charming of all, however, is Opelka and Helbig's framing device of two silent lovers, sitting in boxes on opposite sides of the theatre. Their thwarted flirtation and ultimate triumph—after a jubilant finale featuring as much of a cancan dance as the dimensions of the stage and costumes permit—sends us on our way assured that Love has, once again, Conquered All.


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