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THEATER REVIEW The Flower of Hawaii
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-07-10

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Authors: Paul Abraham ( composer );

Alfred Grunwald & Fritz Lohner-Beda ( librettists ). At: Chicago Folks Operetta, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: FolksOperetta.org; $30-$40. Runs through: July 14

The music is the only thing that matters, really, and it's tuneful, lush, spritely, sweet, sassy and smooth. "I can piss a melody," Richard Rodgers once said, and it seems to fit composer Paul Abraham ( 1892-1960 ), too, whose score is played with luster by a 19-piece orchestra and sung with vigor and charm by a large, capable company under conductor Anthony Barrese.

The Flower of Hawaii was a 1931 smash romantic operetta in Berlin where Abraham's career flourished until Hitler gained power in 1933. Abraham, a Hungarian Jew, ran for his life and his work disappeared. The Nazis tagged The Flower of Hawaii as "degenerate art" partly because Abraham was Jewish, but also because the plot featured forbidden interracial romance ( although at the end Caucasians married Caucasians while Others married Others ). This production is part of Chicago Folks Operetta's Reclaimed Voices Series, featuring composers and works lost to Nazi oppression.

Abraham delighted audiences by combining traditional Viennese love songs with more contemporary up tempo comic songs. Indeed, Chicago Folks Operetta ( CFO ) promotes The Flower of Hawaii as an "exotic jazz operetta," but it's not jazz as we know it, for a saxophone section doth not a jazz band make. Sure, the up tempo tunes are toe-tapping sparklers, but they echo ( favorably ) Jerome Kern's up tempo tunes in his Princess Theatre Musicals over a decade earlier.

Nonetheless, it's easy to take music supporting typical tangled operetta nonsense with four couples embracing at the end. It revolves around Hawaiian nationalism, Hawaii having been an independent kingdom until colonized by the United States in 1893.

You see, Hawaiian Prince Lilo-Taro ( tenor Rodell Rosel ) and royal heir Princess Laia ( Marisa Bucheit, a 2014 Ms. Illinois who can sing, too! ) were betrothed as children, although long separated. Princess Laia is a dead ringer for French singer Suzanne, who's engaged to U.S. jazz singer Jimmy Fox ( high-stepping Ryan Trent Oldham ). Jimmy arrives in Honolulu with the Princess posing as Suzanne, just as Prince Lilo-Taro also returns. The comic villain is the alcoholic, skirt-chasing U.S. governor ( Jerry Miller, a convincing drunk ) and the chief comic role is his assistant, John Buffy ( tall basso buffo William Roberts ). A U.S. Navy captain, the guv's niece and a Hawaiian soubrette complete the four couple total.

The oversized Henri Rousseau-style foliage in Eleanor Kahn's scenic design is simple but pleasing and Patti Roeder's colorful costumes are suave and stylish. Director Amy Hutchinson and five ( ! ) choreographers keep the staging invigorating. Although translator Hersh Glagov and co-adapter Gerald Frantzen ( CFO's artistic director ) have toned down the operetta's non-PC racial elements, The Flower of Hawaii remains quite sexist with a lot of racy ogling and innuendo. So, please remember: It's about the music.


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