Man of La Mancha
At the Light Opera Works
by Dan Zeff
Evanston – It’s been quite a year for veteran Chicagoland actor James Harms. In the spring Harms earned critical acclaim nationally for his performance in “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theatre. Now he’s giving a dominating performance leading the Light Opera Works revival of “Man of La Mancha.”
In the musical Harms plays the famous Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. He also morphs into a dotty Spanish squire who calls himself Don Quixote de la Mancha and gets to sing “The Impossible Dream,” one of the great lump-in-the-throat songs in American musical theater. Harms has always been a versatile actor but “Man of La Mancha” demonstrates that he’s also got a strong singing voice, well able to handle the emotional peaks of “The Impossible Dream.”
“Man of La Mancha” came out of nowhere to become one of the biggest hits of the 1960’s. Nobody could have predicted that a successful show could be constructed out of a novel about a crazy old man wandering around Spain in the early seventeenth century trying to right the wrongs of the world. But the show’s story within a story and the strong score Mitch Leigh (music) and Joe Darion (lyrics) blended with Dale Wasserman’s potent book have captivated audiences for nearly half a century.
The show begins in a Spanish prison (a terrific set by Adam Veness that looks straight out of a Piranesi engraving). Cervantes and his valet have just been tossed into the prison to await the judgment of the Spanish Inquisition after Cervantes took his job as a tax collector too seriously and foreclosed on a monastery. The inmates in the prison put Cervantes on mock trial and to defend himself he acts out the story of Don Quixote with the inmates assuming roles of characters in the novel.
Photo Credit: Chris Ocken
It’s a clever concept as Cervantes takes the role of the addled Don Quixote de la Mancha, who suffers from an excess of idealism as he wanders the land, battling what he perceives as evil. The plot eventually hones in on Quixote, in his illusion as self appointed role as knight errant, adopting a slattern named Aldonza as his lady of virgin purity.
Along with some distinctly Broadway style comedy the show takes a strong stand in favor of idealism doing battle with realism, a term for the cruelties and hypocrisies of human behavior. The musical’s philosophy is laudable if not very profound or original, but its noble thoughts place the book at a higher intellectual level than the great majority of musicals in the last 100 years.
The Light Opera Works, as usual, presents a pull-out-all—the-stops staging with almost two dozen performers accompanied by a full pit orchestra and a wardrobe of authentic period costumes (designed by Jesus Perez). The high quality design credits extend to Andrew H. Meyers (lighting) and Christopher Kusek (sound).
Harms is the man
of the moment, but he gets lots of help from Cary Lovett as the comical but
sympathetic Sancho Panza and radiant singing by Bill Chamberlain as the padre. There
is also good work by Edward MacLennan, a tall and rangy actor who plays
Quixote’s adversary, the humorless and compassionless realist. Greg Zawada
provides a striking stage presence as the brutal leader of a pack of muleteers.
Other quality supporting performances come from Alex Honzen as the governor and
the innkeeper, Peter Eli Johnson as the barber, Jordan Yantz as Quixote’s
niece, and Yvonne Strumecki as the housekeeper. They are all united by their
fine vocal skills to make this a very well sung as well as acted production.
Photo Credit: Chris Ocken
On the quibble side, Colette Todd lacks the gutter-smart cynicism necessary to bring Aldonza fully alive. She has a good operatic voice, though her delivery got a little shrill in the second act “Aldonza” number. Rudy Hogenmiller’s directing is fine but the choreography doesn’t fully capture the violence of the two second act fight scenes at the inn. But the show’s virtues shine through sufficiently to make this a treat for fans of “Man of La Mancha,”, which must include every theater lover who enjoys a dramatic musical with a moist eyed emotional final scene.
It’s become a tradition to end a review of a Light Opera Works production by lamenting that so much talent and so many theatrical resources are poured into a show that runs only nine performances. This is a fine revival and time’s a-wasting to get your tickets.
“Man of La Mancha” runs through August 26 at the Light Opera Works at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street. Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. (no Friday performance August 24), and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $48 to $92. Call 847 920 5360 or visit www.LightOperaWorks.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars. August 2012
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At the Light Opera Works
by Dan Zeff
Evanston – “Camelot” is a good musical that should be better. After all, it was composed by the team of Lerner and Loewe, of “My Fair Lady” immortality. And it takes as its subject one of of the great romantic legends in Western culture, the reign of King Arthur and his creation of the Knights of the Round Table. The show eventually centers on the tragic love affair between Sir Lancelot and Arthur’s Queen Guenevere that destroyed the Round Table and all its lofty ideals of chivalry and honor.
The show does profit from a tuneful score, lots of
opportunities for lush pageantry, and some humor. But the book never really
finds its footing and the story careens to a rushed conclusion. But “Camelot”
has endured for half a century on its romance and its listenable score.
Photo Credit:Chris Ocken
The Light Opera Works is reviving “Camelot” in another of its lamentably brief runs (only seven performances) and gives the vehicle a game try. The company can’t overcome problems embedded in the original. No production can. But it maximizes the virtues of the show, which are considerable, thanks to a strong cast, solid directing by Rudy Hogenmiller, and a trio of creative designers. The revival runs a full three hours, most of the playing time highly entertaining.
The heart of the revival is Nick Sandys as King Arthur. Sandys is one of Chicagoland theater’s best actors and he’s a decent enough singer to get through the role. Arthur does not call for a great voice, any more than Professor Henry Higgins does. There are plenty of other performers who provide first class singing. Sandys makes Arthur a strong and convincing character, and that’s sufficient to elevate the production into a success.
Sandys starts off as King Arthur lite, a breezy young man, insecure in his responsibilities as king and very nervous about marrying Guenevere, a young princess he’s never met. The first act gets by on comedy and charm as Arthur and Guenevere meet, circle each other warily, and finally turn into a happily married couple…for a time.
Photo Credit: Chris Ocken
The story picks up in weight with the appearance of Sir Lancelot, a dashing knight who oozes bravado. Guenevere (Jennie Sophia) and Lancelot (William Travis Taylor) spar in their early meetings but inevitably they fall in love, reluctantly but irreversibly and that devastates Arthur and ultimately destroys the Round Table.
Sandys carries the burden of the story throughout, credibly evolving from a skittish young monarch to a ruler of intelligence and command who is faced with the agony of sanctioning Guenevere’s death for her betrayal. The villain of the show is Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son (conceived while the young Arthur was under enchantment). Mordred is a malignant force but he exudes a certain fascination with his self-awareness as a cowardly and sinister disruptor of Arthur’s court. Mordred doesn’t appear until the second act and then only for a few scenes, but the story could use more of his energy and wry wit, especially as performed by the excellent Patrick Tierney.
Alan Jay Lerner’s book jams the show’s climax into a blur of frantic action in the final few minutes, as if Lerner realized the show was running long and he needed to wrap up the narrative, even at the cost of jamming the finale down the audience’s throat.
The Light Opera Works production is clean and uncluttered. There is a certainly amount of spectacle, but the Cahn Auditorium stage can’t accommodate Broadway level visual splendor. Still, Adam Veness (scenic design), Jeff Henry (costume design), and Andrew Meyers (lighting designing) have united to create a vivid and colorful backdrop to the action, filled with a vast wardrobe of period gowns and battle armor, medieval arches, and images of famous medieval tapestries. Toward the end of the production the show really takes on an opulent look that does great credit to the design team. Todd Rhoades’s choreography emphasizes lots of gamboling in the greensward by lords and ladies of the court and enchantress Morgan LeFey’s nymphs at her invisible castle.
Jenny Sophia is an attractive Guenevere and she has a strong trained voice. William Travis Taylor is an operatic performer who gives Lancelot real emotional dignity after the character’s early pompous appearances. One might quibble that his Lancelot looks older than Sandys’s Arthur, which jars the mentor/student element in their relationship but Taylor’s singing is worth the apparent disparity in ages. There is also good complementary work by Skip Lundby as the silly-ass knight Sir Pellinore, Michael Harnichar briefly but effectively as the magician Merlin, and Patrice Egleston as Morgan LeFey.
The score is a sheaf of familiar numbers—from the comic “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight,” “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” and “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” to the romantic “How to Handle a Woman,” “If Ever I Would Leave You” (the show’s biggest hit), and “Before I Gaze at You Again.” As usual in a Light Operas Works production, the music is enhanced by the sumptuous professional accompaniment provided by a large pit orchestra, Roger L. Bingaman directing.
“Camelot” runs through Sunday at the Cahn Auditorium at 600 Emerson Street. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $32 to $92. Call 847 920 5360 or visit LightOperaWorks.com.
The show gets a rating of three stars. June 2012
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At the Light Opera Works
By Dan Zeff
Evanston – I left Cahn Auditorium on the opening night of “Brigadoon” feeling the same way I’ve felt after so many Light Opera Works presentations. What a shame such an accomplished production is available to audiences for only six performances.
The “Brigadoon” revival displays the qualities we have come to expect from this treasure of a company—beautiful singing, a fine visual production, a luxuriously large cast, and a full Broadway caliber pit orchestra. Those virtues shine especially brightly in the service of one of the great musicals in American theater, with a superb score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (their first hit and nine years before “My Fair Lady”).
“Brigadoon” is actually a throwback to the operettas of the early twentieth century. That isn’t a criticism, just a fact. It’s a romantic fantasy about two modern American men touring Scotland who stumble upon an enchanted village in the highlands. Because of a magic spell, Brigadoon comes to life just one day every century and Tommy Albright and Jeff Douglas just happen to be hiking through the highlands during the 24 hours the village emerges from its 100-year sleep.
It doesn’t take
long for Albright and villager Fiona MacLaren to fall in love. By the end of
the second scene we’ve heard the sprightly “Waitin’ for My Dearie” and “I’ll Go
Home with Bonnie Jean” and the lilting “The Heather on the Hill.” They are soon followed by charming “Come to
Me Bend to Me” and the exuberant “Almost Like Being in Love.” The entire score is a feast of melody and
As usual, the Light Opera Works trolled through the lower tiers of Chicagoland musical theater to come up with some splendid singing voices. First among equals is Jennie Sophia as Fiona. She took over the show with her first song, a radiant rendition of “Waitin’ for My Dearie” and never looked back. Talk about a breakout performance!
Maggie Portman has a couple of showstoppers as the saucy Meg Brockie. Her irresistible comic spins on “The Love of My Life” and “My Mother’s Wedding Day” light up the production. Robert Hunt shows a strong tenor voice as Tommy Albright, and Brandon Moorhead matches him as Charlie Dalrymple, the Brigadoon swain whose marriage to Jean MacLaren (Emily Rogers) is the main subplot.
The production is not only beautifully sung, it’s extremely well acted. Sophia is a charmer as the independent Fiona. The pint-sized Portman does a fine comic turn as Meg, even when she’s not singing. Clay Sanderson is a superb Jeff Douglas, Tommy’s cynical friend. Sanderson makes himself an essential element in the story with his dry comic manner even though he doesn’t sing a note.
Special praise goes to Bobby Johnson as Harry Beeton, embittered by his hopeless love for Jean MacLaren. Johnson takes a character who is mostly a dramatic plot device to drive the story from the first act to the second act and makes Harry a tragic, even sympathetic three-dimensional character. And there is stirring bagpipe playing by Matthew Owens.
Director Rudy Hogenmiller stages the show with a keen eye to its romance and humor. There are some strong visual moments toward the end as Fiona and Tommy separate and come together, trying to bridge their contrasting worlds.
“Brigadoon” is a dancing show, and choreographer Hogenmiller serves up plenty of ethnic Scottish dances and ballet set pieces (the original 1947 choreography was by the great Agnes De Mille). The dancing is serviceable but could use a bit more effervescence. The slight shortage of sparkle in the dancing and the air conditioning in the theater kept at a meat locker chill are the only quibbles in an otherwise continuously entertaining revival.
Light Opera Works is properly proud of its large orchestra, led as always with exemplary professionalism by Roger L. Bingaman. Nick Mozak’s set evokes the open spaces of the highlands and Ricky Lurie’s abundant costumes credibly recreate the look of Scottish life 200 years ago. The light design by Charles Jolls provides some eye-catching stage pictures. Miles Polaski is the sound designer and Susan Gosdick is the dialect coach. The thick Scottish brogues sounded just right to these Midwestern American ears.
“Brigadoon” runs through June 12 at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street on the Northwestern University campus. Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $32 to $92. Call 847 869 6300 or visit www.LightOperaWorks.com.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. June 2011
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At Light Opera Works
By Dan Zeff
Evanston- Even after 65 years, “Carousel” remains one of the luminous masterpieces in American musical theater. Sure the story gets a bit sentimental, and the comedy can be a little naïve, but the Richard Rodgers score is a classic, perfectly dove tailing with Oscar Hammerstein’s evocative lyrics and book.
Light Opera Works is reviving the musical for a brief 10-performance run in a production that deserves to play a season at a Loop theater. So audiences will have to seize the moment. It doesn’t get much better than this.
The 1945 show tells the story of the ill-fated romance between sweet young Julie Jordan and the blowhard lady’s man Billy Bigelow. The year is 1873 and the place is New England. Like Romeo and Juliet, Julie and Billy fall in love at first sight, but after a stormy two-month marriage Billy kills himself following an attempted robbery that goes wrong. The hold-up was Billy’s attempt to raise money to provide for his wife and unborn child.
The first two-thirds of the story is realistic. At Billy’s death the narrative enters fantasy land, with Billy ascending to heaven. There he meets the Starkeeper who allows him to return to earth for one day to visit his wife and daughter (such echoes of ”Our Town” weave throughout the storyline).
The Rodgers score is not only one of his greatest, it’s one of his most functional. Even the non-hits contribute insights into character or further the plot. The score does have its share of stand-alone hits, like the “Carousel Waltz,” “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?”, and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” This last song ranks among the most blatantly manipulative tearjerkers in musical theater and, as usual, by the end of the first chorus I choked up.
The Light Opera Works presentation is wonderfully sung, but we expect nothing less from this company. What really raises the bar of excellence is the exceptional acting level. Part of the credit goes to the cast and part to director Stacey Flaster (who also provides the choreography). I’ve never seen the “If I Loved You” wooing seeing between Julie and Billy performed with such sensitivity and credibility. The secondary romance between Enoch Snow and Carrie Pepperidge comes across with uncommon realism. Normally this couple occupies the stage for comic relief, but thanks to charming performances by Elizabeth Lanza and George Keating, Carrie and Enoch are sympathetic people, humorous to be sure but still human. For years, George Keating has been the actor most deserving of wider recognition in Chicagoland theater. His Enoch is a triumph of comic understatement and he sings like an operetta pro.
As for the two leading lovers, they couldn’t be better as presented by Natalie Ford and Cooper David Grodin. Outwardly Ford has the easier role as the innocent Julie. Still, Ford elevates Julie into a really endearing and plucky young woman, and not just a simpering all-forgiving pushover for Billy Bigelow the caddish lothario.
It’s Grodin who delivers an eye opening performance. We know Billy is brash and shiftless. That’s in Grodin’s performance, but also is an undercurrent of vulnerability, yearning, and emotional confusion. Beneath the wastrel exterior his Billy is a sympathetic figure whose stunted emotions don’t allow him to do and say the things he wants to do and say to communicate his love for Julie and later for his daughter. This is the most accessible and convincing Billy Bigelow I’ve ever seen, climaxed by a really thoughtful rendition of the eight-minute long “Soliloquy” on his impending fatherhood.
All the other characters who matter are performed at a high level by Jeremy Trager (the villainous Jigger Craigin), Winifred Faix Brown (Nettie Fowler), Bill Chamberlain (the Starkeeper), and Katherine L. Condit (Mrs. Mullen). Nicole Miller makes a late appearance as Billy’s 15-year old daughter, primarily in the Ballet scene, an exceptionally well conceived extended piece created by Stacey Flaster. It’s dramatic, graceful, and sexy--part pure dance and part fluent narrative. The large chorus does well in the ensemble singing and dancing bits, though none of the dances rival the Ballet in dramatic or theatrical merit.
In recent seasons, Light Opera Works has raised its physical productions to new levels of creativity and professionalism. This production goes to the head of the class with Tom Burch’s atmospheric set designs, Nikki Delhomme’s colorful period costumes, Andrew Meyers’s mood-setting lighting, and Miles Polaski’s sound design. As always, Roger L. Bingaman majestically directs the Broadway-caliber pit orchestra.
“Carousel” runs through August 29 at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street. Performances are August 18, 22, and 29 at 2 p.m. and August 20, 21, and 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $32 to $98. Call 847 869 6300 or visit www.lightoperaworks.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars. August 2010
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at the Light Opera Works
By Dan Zeff
EVANSTON—“Iolanthe” isn’t in the top tier of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in production popularity. A theater is more likely to revive “The Mikado,” “The Pirates of Penzance,” or “HMS Pinafore.” But the Light Opera Works has carved its niche in Chicagoland theater by staging lesser known old time music shows and it’s come up big with “Iolanthe.
The operetta has the usual G&S disregard for narrative sense. This one deals with the fairy world and the British House of Lords in Victorian England. The title character is a fairy banished from the fairy kingdom for the unpardonable crime of marrying a mortal. Iolanthe has a son by her mortal husband and then is forced to leave her spouse forever, per fairy law. All that occurs before the curtain rises.
The bulk of the story deals with the love affair between a shepherdess named Phyllis and Iolanthe’s son, Strephon. The Fairy Queen gets into the action, along with a British soldier named Willis and the British Lord Chancellor. The majority of characters are gathered into two groups, an exceedingly nubile collection of fairies and a matching collection of middle-aged peers who occupy seats in the House of Lords.
A musical plot that hangs on the consequences of a female fairy marrying a mortal male isn’t the most suspenseful storyline in stage history. “Iolanthe” succeeds with its lush score, some nice satirical potshots at the ruling British aristocracy, and plenty of premium G&S patter songs.
The Light Opera Works staging demonstrates why this company has become such a treasure in area musical theater. The production is gorgeously sung, the costumes are colorful, and as always the large pit orchestra is a joy to hear. As a bonus, the production offers James Harms the plum role of the Lord Chancellor. Harms has been an ornament of local theater for decades and he triumphs once again, especially tossing off those tongue twisting patter numbers.
Alice Berneche gives a vocally radiant performance as Phyllis, and shows some nice comic acting chops as a young woman torn between conflicting marriage proposals from young Strephon and members of the House of Lords. Colm Fitzmaurice is a dashing Strephon who wisely doesn’t take his character too seriously.
Veronica McHale is the physically and vocally imposing Queen of the Fairies, belting out her numbers with a sure operatic voice. Her character ends up in the rush of marital pairings with Private Willis (fine singing by Frank DeVincentis), a character who makes his first appearance, for no apparent reason, in the second act. His nuptials with the Queen of the Fairies makes about as much (or as little) sense as anything else that occurs in the story.
Jessye Wright has a tough assignment as Iolanthe, the only straight character in a stage full of cartoon figures. She plays Iolanthe with poise and she sings well, but the figure seems at odds with the foolery that surrounds her.
The squadron of fairies consists of an assemblage of young ladies of singular physical appeal. They are matched by the peers, all of whom are old enough to be their fathers, which doesn’t prevent the fairies from lining them all up as husbands. The ban on mortal/fairy marriage is conveniently and glibly set aside in the show’s final moments and good will and romance reign unchallenged at the final curtain.
Kurt Johns has directed the production with enough flare to disguise the fact that the show has little physical action. Rudy Hogenmiller’s musical staging consists largely of moving the fairies and the peers deftly about the stage en masse. Roger Bingaman again wields a mighty baton as the company orchestra conductor. The stalwart design team consists of Courtney O’Neill (scenery), Darcy Elora Hofer (costumes), Andrew Meyers (lighting), and Miles Polaski (sound).
Once again I end a commentary on a Light Opera Works production with the melancholy observation that the production plays only six times at the Cahn Auditorium. So much beautiful singing, so much visual creativity, and so few performances.
The show gets a rating of four stars. August 2008Contact Dan: firstname.lastname@example.org
at the Light Opera Works
By Dan Zeff
EVANSTON—Fresh from their triumphant “My Fair Lady” of 1956, the team of Lerner and Loewe created “Gigi” in 1958, one of the most charming motion picture musicals every made.
Flash forward about 15 years, when the Los Angeles and San Francisco Light Opera Associations produced a transfer of “Gigi” from the screen to the stage. The live show picked up the major numbers from the movie and added a few new ones. Some of the score is channeled from “My Fair Lady,” especially the “Embassy Waltz.” The adaptation made its way to Broadway in 1973 where it was critically panned and expired after a couple of months. The moral of the story is that hit movie musicals do not automatically translate into stage hits.
This somber moral has been revisited locally with the revival of the 1973 “Gigi” by the Light Opera Works, which is mounting the show for six performances. It’s not that the production or performances are inferior. The singing is adequate, though rarely distinguished. The costumes are sumptuous and abundant and the sets are professional and inventive. And as always, the company’s large pit orchestra is a glory.
The melancholy fact remains that “Gigi” is a tiresome musical, even with a hatful of prime Lerner and Loewe quality songs.
“Gigi” is set in and near Paris during that decadent time in French social history known as the Fin de Siecle, specifically in 1901. The title character is a rambunctious Parisian teenager named Gigi, who lives with her grandmother in lower middle class circumstances. Her best friend is wealthy young playboy named Gaston. The opening act introduces the main characters, notably the narrator, an elderly rake named Honore who is Gaston’s uncle, and Gigi’s worldly Aunt Alicia.
The first act is dramatically inert. The audience does get a tedium break from songs like “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “The Night They Invented Champagne,” and “I Remember It Well.”
The second act picks up a bit in storytelling interest as Gigi grows from a 15-year old into an attractive gamin. And under Aunt Alicia’s tutelage, the girl is being trained as a courtesan to satisfy the needs of a wealthy patron in return for financial security.
The purchaser of Gigi’s services turns out to be Gaston, who finds the young woman he once treated as a playmate is now worthy of an erotic alliance. So a contract is negotiated (the show’s best number) by lawyers representing both sides to barter Gigi’s “companionship” for Gaston’s money. Ultimately, Honore makes Gigi an honest woman by proposing marriage, deciding he would rather have her as a wife than a mistress, thus relieving the story of an unsavory moral dilemma.
If this sounds a little sordid, the show takes the sting out of the issue by draping Gigi’s entry into the demimonde in Gallic sophistication. Oo la la, those French. They sure know how to handle sex with urbanity, wit, and cynicism.
This may take a severe view of a plot that is intended to be airy, romantic, and frequently comic. And so it was in the movie, thanks to the delicious performances by Leslie Caron as Gigi, Louis Jourdain as Gaston, and especially Maurice Chevalier as Honore. The Light Opera company principals give their roles a good effort, especially Natalie Ford as Gigi with her strong voice and beguiling stage personality. But it’s all insufficient.
Director/choreographer Rudy Hogenmiller enlivens the production with some sprightly ballroom dances, and Nick Mozak’s scenery and Jeff Hendry’s sumptuous costume designs authentically take us back to Toulouse Lautrec’s Paris. The invaluable Roger L. Bingaman again conducts the splendid pit orchestra.
One final complaint. Why do most of the characters speak with a French accent? We know the story is set in and around Paris so we don’t need to be continuously reminded by the addition of a French twang to the dialogue and singing. The accents occasional muddle the dialogue and song lyrics, the most severe case being in “The Telephone” number, in which the singer was completely unintelligible. And if the accents are so essential, how come Jo Ann Minds, in a very fine performance as Aunt Alicia, is allowed to speak in pure English, and the better for it?
“Gigi” runs through June 15 at the Kahn Auditorium,600 Emerson Street. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $29 to $85. Call 847 869 6300.
The show gets a rating of 2 1/2 stars. June 2008
For more information, visit www.LightOperaWorks.com.
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