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May Kings and Road Warriors
Small town music from the Florentine and Skylight.

The Florentine Opera's "Albert Herring."

With money and guns at the forefront of American politics these days, so-called “family values” issues aren’t the lightning rod they once were. But the time is still right for a revival of Benjamin Britten’s charming chamber opera, Albert Herring, a delicious satire of small town morality. So it’s not surprising to see the Florentine Opera depart from the “grand opera” tradition once again and move over to the smaller spaces of the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall.

Adapted from a story by French master Guy de Maupassant, it’s the tale of a hen-pecked mama’s boy who is elected as the town’s May King when it’s decided that most of the young women fall short in the position’s chastity requirement. Albert is reluctant, but mom is exited about the 25 Pound reward that goes with the crown, and he sheepishly steps into the role, subjecting himself to the town’s bombastic celebration of self-importance.

Scored for a 12-piece chamber orchestra, Albert Herring is a good fit for Vogel Hall, and Christopher Larkin conducts Britten’s rich and often complex music with finesse, highlighting its lovely textures and sneaky lyricism. Director William Florescu helps each member of the ensemble cast make his or her mark with a few signature character traits. Although the staging occasionally feels awkward, particularly in the third act, where the actors spend a lot of time bunched onto one side of the stage—a very spare and almost “concert version” set by Noele Stollmack.

The great challenge in Albert Herring is getting the sense and detail of Eric Crozier’s witty libretto, and here the Florentine production is hit or miss. Some singers—Rodell Rosel (Albert) and Andrew Wilkowski (The Vicar) handle their parts beautifully—you can hear them keep the words forward even as they are negotiating some of the challenging vocal lines. But others, such as Kathy Pyeatt, playing the town matron, Lady Billows, and Jamie Offenbach as the town constable, have a harder time communicating. With a nod toward their pompous characters (Lady Billows is decked out in clothes and hair that would qualify her for a season of The Real Housewives of East Suffolk) they hit their notes with a mock grandiloquence, burying their consonants in the loud bluster.

The characters definitely registered, and there is no trouble understanding the comic sense of the opera’s satirical story. But in comedy, the pleasure is in the details, and some of those were definitely lost in an otherwise delectable production.

* * *

Halfway through Act Two of Skylight Theatre’s energetic and folksy revival of Pump Boys and Dinettes, Molly Rhode and Samantha Sostarich—playing the waitresses Rhetta and Prudie Cupp—sing a song called “Sister,” about another pair of sibling waitresses who work at the diner down the road. It’s a classic country lament, sentimental and sad, but heartfelt in its celebration of sisterly affection while it tells the story of a pair of sisters who were “never friends.”

It’s also one of the only moments of genuine feeling to be found in this concert/musical, written and conceived by a sextet of songsmiths and performers, who performed it themselves on Broadway in the early 1980s. There’s definitely some fine songcraft here, complete with tight harmony work and some nice belt-it-out finales. But it captures the spirit of country music about as well as Disney World’s “Country Bear Jamboree.” It’s not surprising that the show has its roots in a show that started in a New York City theme restaurant.

Perhaps it’s a matter of timing. In the thirty years since Pump Boys played Broadway, country music has gained some street cred as an authentic and often profound expression of the human condition and the American experience. Johnny onic contributions to the American songbook. Here, the songbook is heavy on the aw-shucks novelty (like the show’s best known number, “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine”) and light on depth, conflict, and genuine heart.

The Skylight cast does their best with the show, and they sure seem to be having fun.  Accomplished musicians and energetic performCash, for example, was once mostly known as the “Boy Named Sue,” but is now more appreciated for his icers, the mostly local ensemble is buoyed by an experienced Pump Boys veteran, Andrew Crowe, a man of many instrumental talents. The talented Rhode has a couple of well-executed show-stoppers, and Music Director Richard Carsey helps the cast to some great moments of harmonized bliss. And Stage Director William Theisen keeps the show friendly and familiar, and the Sunday matinee audience this weekend seemed to have a good time. I suppose there’s something to be said for a show that offers little more than a good time. But Pump Boys and Dinettes seems more the stuff of cruise ships or theme parks rather than a theater with a legacy like the Skylight. 

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