Folks Operetta's rare Lehar summons more frowns than smiles

In performance 'The Land of Smiles' 2 1/2 stars

Franz Lehar's operetta "The Land of Smiles" has not received a Chicago production in more than 25 years and the bittersweet romantic confection has not fared much better anywhere else in this country during that time.

One reason for the show's widespread neglect is its outdated 1929 storyline, which takes the love affair between a tradition-bound Chinese prince and his Viennese bride as a pretext to suggest that any marriage between Eastern and Western cultures is doomed to failure because of the inherent superiority of the latter culture.

Also, unlike Lehar's better-known and more justly popular "The Merry Widow," this later operetta ends with the lovers living unhappily ever after.

So you have to give Chicago Folks Operetta credit for taking on a by no means surefire piece like "Das Land des Laechelns" (to revert to the original German title). At least the singing, dancing and orchestral playing are up to company standard in the production that launched the troupe's 2013 season last weekend at Stage 773 Theatre on West Belmont Avenue.

Too bad clumsy stage direction and the limited acting skills of most of the performers don't do justice to one of the musical gems of Silver Age operetta.

Lehar's score is awash in captivating melodies and orchestrations lightly tinged with the colors and harmonies of traditional Chinese music. A tidy 20-piece orchestra under Kim Diehnelt serves up this chinoiserie with infectious spirit. There are a couple of good voices in the cast, but getting us to believe their characters, let alone strum our heartstrings, is not their strong suit.

"Land of Smiles" is the ninth English translation (by Hersh Glagov and artistic director Gerald Frantzen) the troupe has employed. This one is less imaginative and more cliché-ridden than previous editions the duo has prepared. The male chauvinism of our princely hero, Sou-Chong, for example, is not softened by assigning him such banalities as the curtain line, "Smile even though your heart is breaking."

If people recognize "The Land of Smiles" at all today, it's because of its often-excerpted greatest hit, "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" (usually translated as "Yours Is My Heart Alone"), an aria made famous by the celebrated Austrian tenor Richard Tauber. At a 1931 London performance of "Land of Smiles," he had to encore the piece six times, singing in five different languages.

Alas, there are no Taubers in today's world, and while the Folks Operetta's leading tenor, Geoffrey Agpalo, delivered Sou-Chong's aria (rendered here as "All of My Heart Is Yours") smoothly and earnestly on opening night Friday, one wanted more vocal and dramatic charisma from his performance as a whole.

Sou-Chong is the visiting Chinese ruler with whom Lisa, a young European woman, falls in love and marries during his visit to her father's court in Austria. She follows him home to the imperial palace, only to learn that custom requires him to take additional, native brides. Although he protests to Lisa that those marriages are meaningless to him, she is outraged and humiliated and begs him to release her from her vows. His anger gives way to resignation and he finally allows her to return home to Vienna.

Both Agpalo and Chelsea Morris, who sang Lisa, command decent voices that blended well during their several love duets. Unfortunately Morris missed the heroine's emotional depth and complexity, and she needs to modulate her dynamics in a small theater where a voice as big as hers can easily turn squally. As for Agpalo's lovelorn prince, he remained inscrutable to the end.

The best performance by far comes from Zachary Elmassian, robust of voice and handsome of bearing, as Lisa's friend Gustl, who follows her to China where he has a short-lived flirtation with Mi, the prince's kid sister. The squeaky-voiced if perky Christine Bunuan gets to exercise her comic chops in a couple of scenes with Elmassian's Gustl, who towers over her Mi. Together they make the comic couple's "If I Love You" duet another musical highlight.

An odd jumble of styles is the production directed by Elizabeth Margolius, with unit set by Ian Zywica, lighting by Julian Pike, costumes by Kate Kamphausen and choreography by Todd Rhoades. On the plus side, effective use is made of shadow figures and computerized video projections such as the army of Chinese terra cotta warriors marching in formation behind the live chorus.

The rest is pretty much a muddle. A motley array of period and contemporary costumes doesn't flatter the performers. Dancing extras are inserted into scenes where they don't belong. Downright annoying are the supernumeraries (refugees from a Japanese Noh play, perhaps?) who turn Sou-Chong and Mi into living puppets during their solo numbers. The libretto makes it clear enough that these characters are bound by Chinese court custom without the stage director's belaboring the point.

For an example of Chicago Folks Operetta operating on an altogether loftier plane, give a listen to the recently released Naxos recording of the company's 2011 production of Leo Fall's delightful romantic comedy, "The Rose of Stambul."

Chicago Folks Operetta's production of Lehar's "The Land of Smiles" plays through July 14 at Stage 773 Theatre, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.; $35-$40, $30 for seniors and students;