Encore Michigan

Opera Grand Rapids’ Student Prince is head of the class

Review June 10, 2016 Sue Merrell

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.–The music in Opera Grand Rapids’ current production The Student Prince is as addictive as a bowl of salty pretzels.

Let’s face it. You can’t nibble just one drinking song. And in this show you don’t have to. Whether the lyrics blatantly proclaim “Drink, Drink, Drink” or rouse the room with the “join in” quality of a Sousa march, the effect of Sigmund Romberg’s infectious score is the same. Thursday’s large opening night audience at St. Cecilia Music Center was eager to clap along with conductor Henry Duitman and the 20-piece orchestra.

The production is advertised as celebrating the craft beer culture in “Beer City,” with the bulk of the story taking place in a boisterous beer garden at the University of Heidelberg. The show also appeals to youthful audiences with area University students filling several major roles and a college-age chorus raising their mugs.

When Romberg’s show debuted on Broadway in 1924, it was near the end of the popularity of English-language operettas, a generation after Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic satires and just a few years before “Showboat” launched the American musical.

Based on Dorothy Donnelly’s play, The Student Prince is the story of Prince Karl Franz, heir to the fictitious German kingdom of Karlsberg. The prince is supposedly incognito as a student at the University of Heidelberg, although he is surrounded by a rather obvious entourage including his snooty valet Lutz who has an assistant comically making sure anyone who addresses Lutz remains a respectful distance away.

The prince parties and pals around with the other students and falls in love with the winsome waitress Kathie. Then duty calls. The prince’s grandfather is ailing and the prince must return to Karlsburg and his betrothed, Princess Margaret.

Although the operetta is traditionally set in the mid-19th century, Scott Skiba, director of the Grand Rapids production, uses a more contemporary timing. The university students aren’t carrying laptops and texting on their phones, but the men are wearing Dockers and layered shirts, and morning coffee comes in a cardboard carrier of plastic-topped cups similar to Starbucks.

The guest star romantic leads – Justin John Moniz as the Prince and Gillian Hollis as Kathie – are simply outstanding. From the moment their characters meet their voices meld together into a glorious duet. It’s as though all the marches and drinking songs are like the assistant keeping the show a respectful distance from opera, but when these two are together the barrier drops and the soaring, dramatic opera takes over. Whether speaking or singing, their performances are always believable. When they part at the end of Act II, it made me shiver.

Several of the standouts in the cast are actual university students. Graham Smith, a senior at Grand Valley State University, fits easily into the role of student leader Detlef. Western Michigan University student Clare Regan makes an outstanding Princess Margaret and Michigan State University senior David Anderson is the perfect complement as Margaret’s love interest, Captain Tarnitz.

Another fun cast member is Grand Rapids native Christine Amon who portrays the bubbly, animated waitress Gretchen. Lansing’s Jeff Massey, a frequent performer with Opera Grand Rapids, was an audience favorite as the comic waiter Toni.

The Grand Rapids production uses students from Kendall College of Art and Design to design the costumes, which is a great idea to get young people involved in the arts. The costume plan in this production is rather nebulous, however. The prince is in distinguished, yuppie, modern sportswear; his ministers in suits and ties. Kathie wears a couple different aproned German beer garden frocks and a flowing, lacey bright blue “going away” dress which seems more from the ‘20s than today. Princess Margaret is the most dramatically and tastefully dressed.

The sets are kept simple with the first two acts never straying from the beer garden. The third act opens at the castle which is created with rosy lighting and gauzy streamers which provide a fantasic way of spotlighting the people from the Prince’s memories of Heidelberg. There are plenty of silver beer mugs raised in the numerous drinking songs, but unfortunately the mugs all have clear bottoms so the audience can see right through them to the faces of the drinkers. A little shading on the bottom of the mug would make the drinking more believable.

“The Student Prince” doesn’t have the romantic, happily-ever-after ending we’ve come to expect, but there’s a bittersweet appeal to remembering the golden days of youthful abandon that never can be again.

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