As I was leaving the theater after Winter Opera’s staging of The Desert Song, I heard someone behind me say, “It was my uncle’s favorite.” I turned and said, “My father’s, too.”
For a long time, The Desert Song was The Muny’s most frequently produced show. It is still in second place (behind Show Boat), even though the most recent performance was in 1996. In precurtain remarks, Winter Opera’s general director, Gina Galati, told the audience The Desert Song has been the most requested operetta since the company was founded in 2008.
When I reviewed a community theater production in 1995, I wrote, “As drama, The Desert Song is creaky, but its Sigmund Romberg score is a source of continual delight…”
The script I criticized is the original one by Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Frank Mandel. If Winter Opera had staged The Desert Song before this year, the company would have had to use that script (or apply for permission to make changes) because it was still protected by its 1927 copyright.
On January 1, 2023, however, works with a 1927 copyright entered the public domain in the United States. It is now permissible to build upon those works, which is exactly what Winter Opera has done. Playwright David Taylor Little and director Jon Truitt have created a new version of The Desert Song that preserves the music and the romantic storyline but updates some of the dialogue for modern audiences.
A major change freed the plot from the event that inspired it, a 1925 rebellion by the Riffs (a Berber ethnic group) against colonial rule. In the new version, the action is set in Sharabat rather than Morocco, and the overlords are Marnish rather than French.
In both versions, General Birabeau has been sent to put down the rebels, whose charismatic leader, the Red Shadow, wears a mask to conceal his real identity. He is, in fact, General Birabeau’s son, Pierre, who pretends to be a weakling to protect his secret identity. Pierre is in love with the beautiful Margot Bonvalet. She is engaged to Captain Paul Fontaine, the general’s second-in-command, but she confesses to Pierre that she fantasizes about the Red Shadow.
The updating of the language in the new book is very successful. The plot still strains credibility, but under Truitt’s direction, the Winter Opera performers had fun with the material instead of taking it at face value. I suspect this approach was more successful than a completely serious treatment would have been.
As Margot Bonvalet, Lauren Nash Silberstein sang beautifully and created a lively, charming character. Colin Levin handled the dual role of Pierre and the Red Shadow with aplomb. Alexander Scheuermann provided delightful comedy as Bennie Kidd, a society reporter who finds himself in over his head when he gets caught up in a war.
Scheuermann had great comic rapport with Holly Janz, who played Bennie’s secretary. There was fine work, too, by Gary Moss as General Birabeau, Kelsey Amanda as Azuri, Jacob Lassetter as Ali Ben Ali, Jason Mallory as Captain Fontaine, Joel Rogier as Sargeant La Vergne, Janelle Pierce as Neri, Cristina Bakhoum Sanchez, as Clementina, Taylor Comstock as Sid El Kar, Halstead Selby as Hassi, Caitlin Hadeler as Edith, Thomas Taylor as Sergeant De Boussac, and Jordan Wolk as Mindar.
The musical elements were delightful in the capable hands of conductor Dario Salvi, chorus master Jesse Cunningham, and the orchestra. Colleen Michelson provided attractive, appropriate costumes for the both the Marnish and the native characters. Scott Loebl’s flexible scenic design accommodated all the required settings. The lighting was by Michael Sullivan, the props by Laura Skroska, and the wigs and makeup by Jessica Dana.
Finally, I must acknowledge the program’s plot summary, which was the cleverest I have ever seen. It purports to be a dispatch from the character Bennie Kidd.
Photo by Rebecca Haas
From the left, Lauren Nash Silberstein as Margot Bonvalet and Colin Levin as the Red Shadow in The Desert Song.