The Student Prince
Paper Mill Playhouse, NJ - April 2000
Review by John Kenrick
Yes, I readily admit that I get a kick out of Sigmund Romberg's 1920's operettas. There is something about the soaring melodies and mindless, corny romanticism of these works that my otherwise cynical soul cannot resist.
Paper Mill Playhouse's artistic director Robert Johanson is a proven master of these works. Unlike most directors of period material, he knows enough to let these shows be judged on their own terms. So I was surprised to see him use a mediocre 1970's revision of The Student Prince which makes disappointing changes to the script and mutilates the lyrics. While Dorothy Donnelly's 1926 lyrics are sometimes campy, they are far more fun than these lifeless verses, and the Hugh Wheeler book used by NY City Opera is far better and readily available.
That said, Johanson maintains a clear focus in this production and lets Romberg's melodies work their magic. "Golden Days," "The Student Drinking Song," "Deep In My Heart" and "Serenade" are still glorious to hear, especially when they are sung by such a gifted cast. David Murin's costumes were exquisite, and Michael Anania's sets were a joy to see, always giving the visual sense of fantasy so crucial to this kind of musical bon-bon.
Brandon Jovanovich and Christiane Noll were visually and vocally dazzling as the Karlsburg prince and Heidelberg barmaid who fall hopelessly in love. Its great when operetta leads have the high notes (and these two certainly do!) ' but its even better when they have the acting technique required to make shamelessly sentimental material so charming. I've seen at least a dozen couples attempt these roles over the years, and none were as successful as this pair. Broadway knows the delightful Miss Noll from Jekyll & Hyde ' I can only hope we get to see Mr. Jovanovich on the main stem, where roles worthy of a high-C tenor with drop-dead good looks are now so painfully rare.
Metropolitan Opera star Jerome Hines was genuinely touching as Dr. Engel, his booming bass baritone giving the opera buffs in the audience a thrill. Broadway comedienne Jane Connell made the most of the Grand Duchess, and veteran actor Eddie Bracken did some delightful show stealing as the old wine steward. This version of the book turns many of the supporting characters into ciphers, but Bill Bateman as Lutz, Glory Crampton as the Princess and Robert Longo as Tarnitz get special credit for making the best of a bad deal.
The male chorus was one of the most vocally and visually stunning this author has seen in a lifetime of theatre going. Special kudos to Steven Hogle as Von Asterberg and William Whitefield as Detleff.
In the end, this Student Prince made the sentiment work and left the audience cheering through its tears. One hopes that Romberg's works continue to be professionally produced and enjoyed through the 21st Century. In many ways, we need this kind of lighthearted lyrical romance now more than ever.