No Second City revue of the last 54 years has been held in more gorgeous surroundings than "The Second City Guide to the Opera," a summer partnership between the famed comedy theater and the increasingly open-minded Lyric Opera of Chicago — that allows audience members to ascend to the colossal stage of the Civic Opera House. There, a truly impressive array of couches, tables, themed cocktails and dangling chandeliers await, and one gains what one might think of as a soprano's eye view of one of Chicago's most essential treasures, illuminated for the occasion. No wonder audience members were lining up to take pictures with their phones. For summer tourists, few such elegant encounters await. Sketch comedy never looked classier.
A gilded setting, of course, does not a show make. Thankfully, "The Second City Guide to the Opera" is a generally entertaining mix of actor-improvisers (Joey Bland, Molly Brennan, Tim Ryder, Timothy Sniffen, Lili-Anne Brown, the standout Beth Melewski) and singers (Lauren Curnow, a mezzo-soprano, and the tenor Bernard Holcomb).
The ensemble pokes gentle fun at the noble art of opera, and the various codified conventions of its inarguably haughty culture, especially as it pertains to those in the seats. The revue, which was originally commissioned by the Lyric and directed by the talented Billy Bungeroth, is certainly a highly effective way for the Lyric to have a little summer-camp amusement along with its most loyal patrons, some of whom (seated, 'natch, in the $75 seats), were thoroughly enjoying themselves on Sunday night. Opera lovers feel part of a club — it is a crucial reason as to why the art form still thrives with such vibrancy — and rare is the chance to chuckle along with gags about supertitles; audiences who like to sing along, annoyingly; "The Magic Flute;" Wagnerian excesses; the stultifying homogeneity of the oeuvre of Philip Glass. That kind of thing.
One had the sense that some in the crowd were experiencing the manifestation of their wildest dreams: a chance to laugh, all night long, at a "Ring Cycle" curtain announcement ("now featuring previously unreleased material") and to see a takedown of "The Phantom of the Opera," wherein the populist masked interloper is confronted with the notion that his opera is not really an opera at all. On Sunday, that sketch didn't just get laughs but the applause of those who felt the raw pleasure of vindication on home field.
This show had its origins in a one-night-only event last winter that featured Renee Fleming and Patrick Stewart. Those good-natured luminaries aren't part of the summer run, although one of the major assets of the show is the idea of including bona fide opera singers along with the more typical cast. Both Curnow and Holcomb are strikingly engaging comics, with Holcomb a pleasure throughout and Curnow killing during one segment where she wraps her pipes around a decidedly questionable repertoire consisting of material made famous by Carly Rae Jepsen and the Empire carpet company. Such moments, along with Melewski's acerbic takedowns of the public master class, with its power structures and terrors, are when the show is at its best: when the operatic form and the improvisational art truly are integrated in a way that feels like it's pushing the envelope, formatively speaking.
Aside from not really getting under the skin of the repertoire — and not offering enough genuinely operatic improv, which would be quite the feat, I think — what is most lacking is good, old-fashioned, Second City edge. There are dangers for the satirist when the object of the satire is a full partner in the satiric enterprise. And while I'm sure that Lyric offered full creative freedom, the show goes pretty easy on the world of opera, even ending in a unfortunately milquetoast ditty suggesting that a visit to the opera is a cure for what ails us. And whadaya know? We're already there.
It's one thing to have fun in an opera house — a fine thing, actually, with clear audience-development benefits for the Lyric — but this show is aimed at the paying public, and thus it also should make it a point of pride that its genial hosts, the owners and operators of this grand venue, feel at least a little big uncomfortable at what they are hearing. Preferably, they'd feel burned like President Obama during a Jay Leno takedown. They can take it. The opera will survive.
When: Through June 30
Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $35-$75 at 312-332-2244 or lyricopera.org