The Desert Song | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

The Desert Song 

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THE DESERT SONG

Sigmund Romberg's operetta The Desert Song was a rousing hit when it debuted on Broadway in 1926, but the genre was already on the wane in the States. By the end of World War II, the musical had won over American audiences--even though little but the operetta's reliance on classically trained voices separated the two. Romberg, a Hungarian who'd learned his craft in Vienna, moved to New York in 1909 and picked up the local vernacular of ragtime and vaudeville, adding it to his already broad vocabulary of central European musical idioms. He was a gifted songsmith, and The Desert Song has at least four classic tunes: the title ditty; the lush, melodic "Riff Song"; the rhapsodic "One Alone"; and the rip-roaring "It," which lampoons the movie vamps of the 20s. Rudolph Valentino's The Son of the Sheik and T.E. Lawrence's book about the Arab revolt of World War I made big splashes in 1926, and The Desert Song brazenly capitalized on both, making its hero a French foreign legionnaire who disguises himself as a Berber chieftain to lead an army of Moroccans against their French and Spanish colonizers. (The real Moroccan rebellion was also in headlines at the time.) As in any proper bodice ripper our hero, the swashbuckling Red Shadow, abducts his love interest, Margot, provoking a song-and-dance number--just like in your typical musical, where every plot twist or romantic interlude is an excuse to crank up the orchestra. But you know you aren't watching Andrew Lloyd Webber when both the soprano and the tenor can hit a high C. Light Opera Works, a local operetta specialist, first revived The Desert Song a decade ago, but this time around artistic director Philip Kraus has recruited dinner-theater director William Pullinsi to stage it with a 90s sensibility. The convincing cast includes tenor Stanton Garr (the Red Shadow), soprano Joelle Charbonneau-Blanco (Margot), and audience favorite Bill Wronski providing comic relief as Benjamin Harris, a Times of London society columnist. Saturday, December 26, 8 PM, Sunday, Monday (families with children are encouraged to attend this performance), and Wednesday, December 27, 28, and 30, 2 PM, Thursday through Saturday, December 31 through January 2, 8 PM, and Sunday, January 3, 2 PM, Cahn Auditorium, Northwestern University, 600 Emerson, Evanston; 847-869-6300. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Rich Foremann.

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