Gangsters hold forth in second operatic update

One of the dancers from Danny’s nightclub in The Merry Widow (photo courtesy of CAPA)
One of the dancers from Danny’s nightclub in The Merry Widow (photo courtesy of CAPA)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live and Opera Columbus had so much success with last year’s update of La Boheme that they decided to do it again. This time, the collaborators’ target is the 1905 operetta The Merry Widow.

As before, the lyrics have been translated to English while the action has been truncated and relocated to Columbus. Donathin Frye adapted the Franz Lehar/Victor Leon/Leo Stein work and directed the production, which again unfolds amid the tables of Shadowbox’s Backstage Bistro.

The verdict: It’s a pleasant way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, especially if you combine it with one of the bistro’s tasty appetizers. Though not as involving or moving as La Boheme (not surprisingly, given the original’s comic nature), it features strong voices singing pretty solos and duets. Like the updated La Boheme, it amounts to a good introduction to opera for the uninitiated.

Whether opera buffs like it probably depends on their tolerance for deviations from the source material. And Frye does do a lot of deviating.

In place of the original work’s European nobles, Frye fills his tale with Columbus mobsters who are terrified of upsetting their Chicago-based boss, Don Mondo. The problem is that Hanna (Kristen Kurivial) has inherited $20 million from her late husband, and the unseen Mondo wants to ensure that she remarries someone who will keep the money in the family.

Mondo’s preferred husband-to-be is his nephew, Danny (Daniel Scofield), owner of a nightclub of slightly ill repute. Unfortunately, Danny and Hanna have a troubled history that has left them with a love-hate relationship.

Now, you, I and the bedpost know Danny and Hanna will eventually transcend the “hate” part, but in the meantime local crime boss Don Zeta (David Weaver) is worried Hanna will end up with someone who’s not only unrelated but a cop to boot: Detective Cameron (Robert Bux). Little does he know that Cameron is actually in love with Zeta’s own semi-faithful wife, Valerie (Katherine Petersen).

Frye plays up the adaptation’s mobster element with stereotypical jokes and characters that would become tiresome if the tale weren’t so breezy and good-natured. Besides, the point of all this is to hear good music, and on that score, the show delivers.

Performing under Jason Hiester’s musical direction and to pianist James R. Jenkins’s sprightly accompaniment, the cast raises voices that range from good to great. Scofield’s baritone is especially aria-worthy, but other leading players hold their own.

Petersen displays fine pipes as the teasing Valerie, and her duets with her panting admirer, Bux’s Cameron, are both tuneful and sexy. Kurivial’s solos as Hanna benefit from her own sweet voice, though it’s a little odd that she suddenly develops an Appalachian-like accent when she’s not singing.

As for Frye’s lyrics, they’re fun, if occasionally silly. “You may think that it’s a joke,” Valerie sings to the seductive Cameron, “but it will end with guns and smoke.” And that sounds like Shakespeare compared to “Tippy dippy,” a line from a later song performed by the raunchy dancers who headline Danny’s club.

Then again, if you were worried about rampant silliness, you probably wouldn’t be attending this updated, gangster-filled operetta. In fact, you probably wouldn’t be attracted to opera in the first place.

Opera on the Edge (a collaboration Shadowbox Life and Opera Columbus) will present The Merry Widow through Nov. 17 and Jan. 11 through Feb. 2 at the Backstage Bistro, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 4 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. Tickets are free (selected seats are $10); reservations are recommended. 614-416-7625 or