ROCKVILLE – “Girls! Girls! Girls!” We refer not to the title of the Elvis Presley movie, but quote an exclamation from the singing septet in the Victorian Lyric Opera Company’s highly accessible production of Franz Lehar’s century-old operetta The Merry Widow. The “merry widow” of the title is Hanna Glawari, a native of the impoverished, postage stamp-sized (and fictional) country of Pontevedra. Her elderly husband died and left her a fortune. Now she is about to marry a Frenchman, and this marriage is opposed by her countrymen: she is the only wealthy person in the country, and they fear the loss of her taxable assets. The lover of her youth, one Danilo, is now a diplomat in Pontevedra's embassy in Paris. Danilo is instructed to court Hanna with the intention of engagement and marriage in order to save his country from bankruptcy. Although he is still sincerely in love with her, she assumes he has only resumed his courtship because she is the very rich “merry widow.” It is a comic tale in which the pursuit of true love is juxtaposed with a love of convenience – and connivance.
The traditional production which most audiences of "The Merry Widow" know is replete with Viennese waltzes (including, of course, the famous “Merry Widow Waltz”) as well as operetta-style arias and duets. Mary Claire Sullivan, exuding charm as Hanna, certainly acquitted herself well in singing the haunting melody of the “Vilja-Lied,” a legend of the siren-like “Vilja” of the mountains who entices huntsmen.
While Act I comes across as a traditional operetta in all its orchestral glory and nineteenth-century dress and gowns, it is after the intermission - in the second and third acts - that the charmingly accessible qualities of this production come to the fore. There is a seamless blend of the art of the Austrian operetta with forms of entertainment (namely the Broadway and Hollywood musical) which resonate strongly with an American audience.
A screen backdrop burst out in the overly saturated tones of Technicolor musicals of the 1940’s and 1950’s, changing color from song to song, according to mood, as in the film version of South Pacific. A standout of the production was when Danilo and his companions locked arms, kicking forward in unison, tipping on and off their glitter hats in imitation of the “One!” sequence from Broadway’s A Chorus Line. The story takes place in Paris, with many scenes in the legendary restaurant Maxim’s, where a chorus of girls flounces skirts and petticoats à la Cole Porter’s Can-Can.
The accessibility of this production for an audience not accustomed to operetta is enhanced by subtitles - or rather “supertitles,” as they are projected above the curtain. These captions - though occasionally out of sequence and with a spelling error or two - serve an enormously helpful role, even though the production is in English. The text and rhymes are witty, as in the original German-language libretto by Viktor Léon and Leo Stein. It should be noted for those familiar already with The Merry Widow that this is not a direct translation but rather an adaptation, again adding to the accessibility of the production with phrases such as: “Your name is mud!” “When hell freezes over!” “In a divorce, you split the house and kids!” “Greed is good!” And breaking the fourth wall: “You can’t use profanity like that in an operetta!”
"The Merry Widow," which runs at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville through March 4, is recommended enthusiastically for an entertaining evening which blurs the lines between operetta and musical, between European customs and costumes of a century ago and the American every day of 2018. Indeed, between true love and love of convenience.