Oddly enough, what Toronto Operetta Theatre does best is operetta and the production of Romberg’s The Student Prince that opened yesterday afternoon is a pretty good example of why. I suppose, technically, that it’s a Broadway musical but everything about it, down to the humour and sentimentality seems Teutonic enough. Anyway, there’s a solid trio in the lead roles, the key back ups are thoroughly professional and the minor roles and chorus are filled out by talented and enthusiastic young singers. The band is big enough to cover all the colours of the score and the staging is appropriate and not overly ambitious. The piece gets to do its tuneful, rather bittersweet thing.
It’s a slightly peculiar work in that it doesn’t really have a happy ending. It’s the anti-Pinafore. Duty triumphs over love (and, 18th century cynics or King Edward VII’s friends might suggest, the obvious alternative). Basically, Prince Karl-Franz of Karlsberg leads an etiquette stultified existence at the court of his grandfather the king. His “freedom” is represented by a year in the company of his tutor at the University in Heidelberg. Fortunately his doddering tutor longs to recreate his student youth so it’s all pretty girls, drinking songs and beer (oddly enough the beer in Karlsberg seems to be pretty awful).. There’s a bit of Latin but no duelling scars. Naturally Karl-Francis falls in love with a barmaid; the lovely Kathie, but he’s betrothed to the proper, and realistic, Princess Margaret. Recalled home prematurely by the death of his grandfather and his succession to the throne, he finally, reluctantly resolves to go through with the marriage but makes one last trip to Heidelberg to break the news to Kathie and, ever dutiful, to tie up other loose plot ends.
All of this provides plenty of opportunity for romance, lusty drinking songs and a fair bit of Teutonic, rather than Gilbertian, humour. It’s presented, by Guillermo Silva-Marin, in a lively and colourful manner with lots of dance elements and good use of the small stage and the surrounding theatre space. The romantic leads; Ernesto Ramirez and Jennifer Taverner are well suited. Ramirez can sound sincere and, even occasionally, heroically Italianate while Taverner is sprightly, light and bright with enough presence to be funny rather than sappy when needed. Curtis Sullivan, for once not striking heroic bare chested poses, is a revelation as the physically challenged tutor. His firm baritone is a pleasure to listen to and he shows acting chops that have escaped me in a dozen or more Opera Atelier performances. There are excellent supporting performances. Sean Curran. as the prince’s fussy and self-important valet, does some excellent physical clowning. Stuart Graham as the very correct prime minister and Dina Shikhman as the equally correct Princess Margaret are entirely convincing and the rest of the young cast double up as the chorus of students and girls who hang out in bars with students etc and also play the rest of the, many, small parts. There’s a 12 piece pit band and it’s all pulled together musically in a sprightly enough manner by Derek Bate.
All in all, this production is an enjoyable and undemanding way to spend a couple of holiday hours. Tunes, eye candy, colour. What’s not to like? The Student Prince plays at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts and there are further performances tonight and New Year’s Eve at 8pm with matinées on the 2nd and 3rd of January.