Saturday, May 30, 2009

ENCHANTED ISLE

Much in the vein of every musical biography ever presented, ENCHANTED ISLE (1935) by Marion Wakeman and Ira Wilson presents little bit of fictional history regarding Frederic Chopin's visit to the island of Mallorca in 1836.

Okay, history first. Chopin did indeed travel to Mallorca, when he was twenty-six. While there, he wrte some of his most famous works, such as the first concerto in E minor op. 11. But that's about as far as history goes in ENCHANTED ISLE.

Instead, this little piece begins with the happy villagers doing their happy villager thing: mending fishing nets, weaving baskets, and other "homely tasks". Their benign happiness at how pretty the day is is interrupted by the return of Ramon, Juan, and the rest of the boys from the big city of Palma, where they apparently partied pretty hard with the local girls... much to the distress of Elena, who's in love with Ramon, and the undisguised jealousy of Maria, who's in love with Juan. But more importantly, Ramon has brought back a letter for Elena's father, telling him someone named Chopin is coming to stay at their inn... and that he's arriving — today!

No sooner have they brushed things up a bit than Chopin's boat arrives. The man himself is frail and a bit sickly from the voyage: he hopes that his stay on Mallorca will remedy whatever's wrong with him before he has to return to Paris. But Ramon certainly doesnt take well to Elena's sudden interest in this foreigner, particularly when Chopin offers to sponsor Elena's singing career. Things are getting tense as the curtain falls...

In the next scene, it's three months later. Chopin's piano has arrived, Elena is entranced by descriptions of life in Paris, and Ramon shows up with a new boat — not for fishing, however. It turns out that he's gone into smuggling. He's delighted that he's now going to make enough money to fnally marry Elena... but suddenly she's not so interested in him anymore. Ramon thinks she's fallen for Chopin, but that's not entirely the case: she wants to try her wings at this singing thing, and she wants to do it big-time... in Paris.

Ramon is devastated, but Elena tries to assure him that she's only doing it for them. But her own happiness is short-lived when Chopin tells her he's decided against taking her to Paris... not because she cant sing well enough, but he's afraid Paris will corrupt her. She leaves in tears, and Chopin realizes that not only is she in love with the idea of being a famous singer, she's in love with him as well -- and he knows that cant work. After all, she's so young and he's so old (at twnety six!). He doesnt want to stand between her and Ramon's happiness, so he decides to cut out quick and asks Ramon to take him to Palma, where he'll take a boat headed for France. He says his goodbyes to Elena and her parents, then Ramon tells Elena he's off to Palma... to stay. But that too turns out to be a bit of red herring, because he's not, and they're getting married (he and Elena, that is, not he and Chopin), and everyone sings about their enchanted isle, and the curtain falls.

If anything is working for ENCHANTED ISLE, it's, of course, Chopin's music, which has been lightly edited and slightly re-arranged to serve the vacuous — and, at times, downright purple — lyrics:

Star of the sailor, guide once more
To this enchanted peaceful shore
Fair haven of dreams
Brightly it gleams
Mid waters blue
We gladly will share
All of its charm with you

ENCHANTED ISLE isnt the only operetta that appropriated music from a famous composer, but it's arguably one of the thinest in terms of plot. Chopin is little more than a big city boy who's decided to go native for a while, and Elena and Ramon are barely a step above Spanish hillbillies with great voices. Ramon's turn to smuggling doesnt go anywhere whatsoever, and you'd think such a dangerous career move would create something in the way of a plot development. Instead, it's little more than "oh you were a fisherman now you're a smuggler EVERYBODY SING!" — and then it's forgotten.

But even the failed romance between Chopin and Elena fails to muster even the slightest bit of chemistry: she's dazzled by him; he's clueless. And that's as far as we go. It's all just played on the same emotional plane from beginning to end, without even a slight detour into some much-needed comic relief. In fact, the one couple that you think would provide that — Juan and Maria — are pretty well forgotten after the boys' return from Palma. Whatever storyline they might have had was derailed quickly and vanished.

At the very least, it has Chopin's music. The selections are well known works, with the possible exception of a couple that skirt with obscurity. Still, they work well for their placement in the score. It's a sad consolation, but about the only one we get.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

TULIP TIME

It's been a while since posting here, and for that I apologize. So let's get this puppy back on track with something that will hopefully make it all well worth the wait.

It continues to strike me as a little odd that the Netherlands should command so much attention of the authors and composers behind the early high school musical — and yet it does. Right now, I have about a half dozen works that all take place in that region of Europe, some pretty awful, others — like TULIP TIME (1927) — actually not so bad.

But then again, it comes from the team of Morgan and Johnson (with arrangements by the inevitable Don Wilson and cover art by Donn Crane), whose work never seems to fail in terms of its sheer entertainment value. While the plots are never much more than facile, Morgan and Johnson both deliver nicely in not only appeasing their audiences as well as their amateur performers.

So... we're in the little Dutch village of Osendorf, and it seems everyone is somehow connected with the flower trade, either as a grower or as a seller. Despite the angry denials of the town's Burgomaster, Hendrick Van Ooster, everyone's enjoying a holiday... for no real reason than they just want to. And in the midst of this spontaneous frivolity arrives a party of American tourists, most notably Professor McSpindle, an expert in botany, and two of his students, Ned and Dick, whose scientific attentions to flowers are utterly and completely lost when they see Christina and Katinka.

But Christina in particular has no time for a summer romance, even with a cute American. Her mother is ill, and they're poor as the proverbial churchmice. The burgomaster has offered to buy what he says are worthless stocks and bonds Christina's father sent from America before he died, but Christina promised she'd keep them, worthless or not, for ten years, as her father requested. Still, she could really use the cash now, so the burgomaster's offer is severely tempting.

But Ned, who's seriously infatuated, questions the burgomaster's intentions: if these things are as worthless as Van Ooster claims, why would he buy them? Ned offers to take a look at them, because he suspects they're worth far more than the hundred guilder currently on the table.

Problem is, he cant find any quality time with Christina because the well-leaning professor has declared this to be a "flirting-free" trip. But opportunity comes knocking when news hits of an international tulip bulb thief at large, complete with a detailed description of the robber's clothing. Ned and Dick hit on the scheme to have the professor dress up like the thief and have him arrested, which would free them up for a little time with their girls.

So the professor unwittingly gets himself landed in jail, Ned finds out that the stocks are worth close to a million dollars (in 1927 money!), the boys get their girls, the professor is released and finds his own cutie, the burgomaster is thwarted, and we all sing the praises of tulips as the curtain falls.

Now, taken for what it's worth, TULIP TIME is actually a charming little show, one of the better I've seen thus far from Morgan and Johnson. It's not quite as rollicking as CROCODILE ISLAND, but no matter. While the affected Dutch accents are pretty severe, the play doesnt seem as rife with stereotypes as you might expect: the Hollanders are all well-drawn characters, even the not-quite-so-evil Burgomaster, who's not so much a villian as an opportunist. The professor is slightly more than a two-dimensional part, with opportunity — especially in the second act — for some great comedic moments when he appears dressed exactly like the international bulb thief. While everything about the show is, of course, eminently predictable, it still travels along some agreeable roadways, like the little song for the Burgomaster and his young apprentice Hans:

BUR. I hold a lot of other jobs
I am der health inspector
As county clerk I sometimes work
Or safety-first director

HANS. Sometimes he acts as traffic cop
Ven he says 'Go', ve never stop
Keeps everybody on the hop
All hail the burgomaster!

There's also a delightful little number in which Hans conducts the girls' chorus in a dancing lesson. Bearing in mind that everyone would be wearing wooden shoes, you cant help but laugh at the possible choreographic moments attendant to:

First mit der left foot and den mit der right
Stamping der feet down mit all of your might
Ach, such gracefulness makes a delight

But arguably the best number in the show is a duet for the burgomaster and Anna, a woman of "a certain age" who's Christina's guardian during her mother's illness.

ANNA. Dont you think that they would like a word from you?

BUR. Maybe und maybe not.

ANNA. Dont you think to make a speech is just the thing to do?

BUR. Maybe und maybe not.

ANNA. Dont you think when strangers from aboard come into town
They should have a welcome from a man of your renown
You should be a cordial host and do the thing up brown

BUR. Maybe... und maybe not.
There are two sides to every question

ANNA. And you have to watch your step when you reply

BUR. Ven I hear interrogations
I bust out in perspirations

ANNA. For it means you have to frame an alibi

BUR. Politicians must be magicians

ANNA. Or they'll find the water getting mighty hot

BUR. So to questions such as Vont you/Vill you/Are you/Aint you?
I say
Maybe... und maybe not

Like so many others from this team, TULIP TIME could endure a little brushing off and some minor musical rewrites and then stand quite nicely on its own once more. In addition to its charm and humour, TULIP TIME is one of those works that speaks volumes about its creators, a words-and-music team that never gave less than its best effort. I wish we knew more about these men... as well as the many others who devoted their lives in service to this artform. I have a suspicion that there are some equally great stories lurking in the shadows of these little musicales.