The Grand Duchess of Helmsley-Stein | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

The Grand Duchess of Helmsley-Stein 

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THE GRAND DUCHESS OF HELMSLEY-STEIN

In updating Jacques Offenbach's delectable satire The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Chicago Opera Theater's Carl Ratner has picked a rich contemporary target: Leona Helmsley. Like the title character in the original opera bouffe, she's an impetuous despot--the "Queen of Mean"--who rules over a tiny principality, New York's Palace Hotel. Her humble subjects are the maids and bellboys, and she too is threatened by a powerful enemy, the IRS. In the Offenbach, the duchess falls in love with Fritz, a foot soldier, and quickly promotes him up through the ranks to the dismay of her ministers; in the Ratner version Leona lusts after Fritz, a bellhop, to the chagrin of her managerial staff, while keeping the wealthy suitor Harry at bay. What remains to be seen is how Ratner's adapted the original libretto's razor-sharp swipes at mid-19th-century petty autocrats, their jaded manners and jingoism. Offenbach, who wrote the original for the Paris Exhibition in 1867, had to battle censors who thought the duchess was Russia's man-crazy Catherine the Great. Ratner, under no such pressure from Leona and her ilk, only has to battle claims that the Reagan 80s is a straw man. Musically, however, he's taking some risks, notably making the orchestra part of the action, as the lounge band onstage: while the slightly reduced ensemble might be all right for more courtly numbers, it could water down the bombastic silliness so crucial to the first act. For this production, Ratner, who also directs, has recruited mezzo-soprano Melanie Sonnenberg, a veteran of the national musical-theater circuit, for the title role. Tenor James Doing is Fritz, and baritone Michael Sokol plays General Boom (from the original's Boum), a warmongering buffoon who sings a tongue-twisting, onomatopoeic personal theme song. Bradley Vieth, who's conducted a number of musicals for the Goodman, is in charge of the music, which ranks among Offenbach's most tuneful and biting. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 PM, and Sunday, 3 PM, Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 E. Balbo; 773-292-7578. TED SHEN

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

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