6:13 PM CDT, August 22, 2011
Institutions of higher learning have long been perilous for royals and their keepers. Look what happened to Prince William. He ended up hitched to a commoner.
Of course, William had nothing on the rebellious inclinations of Prince Karl Franz, heir to the throne of Karlsberg and the hero of the throaty Sigmund Romberg operetta "The Student Prince." Karl headed off to Heidelberg University, where he briefly majored in drinking and back-slapping and promptly fell in love with an Austrian waitress at the Inn of the Three Golden Apples, where many such temptations awaited — the show calls for an entire female ensemble of waitresses, pigtails, dirndls and all.
That abiding fantasy — handsome young prince throws off the chains of the monarchy and falls in love with an ordinary, albeit inevitably beautiful, girl — partly explains why "The Student Prince" was such a massive hit in the 1920s. The rest of the explanation probably lies with Romberg's zesty, hearty, optimistic score — a populist cocktail of lovely tenor arias, folk marches and rousing ensemble ditties that can be aptly summed up by the most famous lyric in their number: "Drink, drink, drink!"
After a few rousing choruses of that Sunday afternoon at Light Opera Works, where Roger L. Bingaman's lively orchestra was oompahing on all cylinders, I found myself wondering where one might find an Oktoberfest deep in the dog days of August.
Artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller has forged a wholly traditional staging of the operetta — rising and falling drops; unspeakably broad comedic performances in the character roles; huge choruses of students and waitress all squeezing themselves through the same tiny tavern door like Germanic clowns. Tom Burch's set could not be more predictable.
Perhaps this company thinks its audience expects such a staging. And, for sure, the comic subplot is vaudevillian at its root. But a pox on that, I say. "The Student Prince" is a much better book than you probably remember. If it had been staged in a more progressive, imaginative, fresh, fluid manner — something close to what Warren Carlyle did on Broadway with the revival of "Finian's Rainbow" — it likely would have held up very well.
At minimum, the staging needs more pace, subtlety and wit. You could drive a beer truck through some of the shtick on this stage: Glenn Braun, who plays Count von Mark, might as well have been playing Count Dracula. And although Dale Benson remains a beloved figure in the Chicago theater, he isn't well cast as a valet here.
You will have to suffer all of that. In reward, you get two of the finer leads I've seen on a Light Opera Works stage. The gorgeously voiced young tenor William Bennett has the kind of posture that would make a movement teacher nuts, but he's immensely likable and credible as a nerdy royal who wants to throw off the cares of state and be one of the boys, but doesn't quite know what to do. He reminded me of watching Daniel Radcliffe hanging out with castmates in a Broadway dive, and that's exactly what this character requires.
His opposite number, Danielle M. Knox, is a raven-haired, emotionally vulnerable beauty with a sumptuous voice who nailed the idea of a young woman who wouldn't mind being a queen but doesn't want to do it unless she can be sure of the man who would be king.
Hogenmiller does marvelous work with this young couple. "The Student Prince," though, is constructed as a love triangle. And in the smart but rather thankless role of Princess Margaret, the Prince's prearranged spouse, Stephanie Stockstill is simply wonderful, taking a fanciful, stock situation and somehow putting you in mind of loves lost, mistakes made and circumstances regretted all around. She had a tear in my eye.
This earnest, honest, empathetic trio is so collectively strong that they make all the wooden, obvious clutter around them fall away — and they make the enterprise well worth a listen. There's a strong, populist heart that beats in "The Student Prince." Now if only it could pump through the whole show.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $32-$92 at 847-869-6300 or lightoperaworks.com
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