Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Saucy Hollandaise

Secrecy is at the core of THE SAUCY HOLLANDAISE (1930) by Paul Bliss (cover art by Corina Melder-Collier), although the secret itself... well, like all secrets, you'll have to wait a bit to find it out.

That's not to say it's a good secret. Just that you have to wait.

We're in Holland, in the Royal Gardens. A ship from another country (never specified, but I think it's supposed to be England) has just arrived, and the sailors share their love for sailing the oceans and having a girl in every port. But the Prince who has commissioned this voyage has larger things in mind: to woo the Princess of Holland so he can learn the important State Secret she holds.

For their part, the narcoleptic King of Holland and his wife the Queen (who actually runs Holland with a semi-iron fist) dont want anyone to learn the secret, so they've arranged for the Princess to be shadowed by a tinker named Hans.

Still, the Prince is more than a little relentless and eventually wins the heart of the Princess, who tells him all about the important secret just before the curtain falls.

Running parallel to this numbingly obvious story is a series of gag scenes involving a doctor who, through a process he calls "trephining" manages to mix up the brains of the King and the Prince's ship's captain, who was about to organize a mutiny if the Prince didnt allow the men to stay in Holland. As a result, the mutineer becomes docile (and sleepy), while the King is transformed into a ragin' ruler, cutting through protocols with a razor-sharp sword in order to get all the storylines completed before the final curtain.

The secret? Okay, remember Hans Brinker, who saved Holland from drowning by supposedly putting his finger in the dyke? Nope, didnt happen. Instead, he reversed the engines in the windmills, which sent the water away from Holland instead of into it. For some reason I still havent quite figured out, if everyone knew this, it'd be a problem. I'm not sure how. I suppose it might involve the windmills generating such a force that they would blow back the ships of any invader who might come along. But that's a guess, because Bliss is... well, blissfully silent on the issue.

And perhaps I'm not supposed to. Bliss wrote THE SAUCY HOLLANDAISE as a kind of broad, vaudeville-style comedy, with character roles all over the place — the title should be your first clue about how seriously he takes the story. Everyone except for the two leads gets to participate in some very low comedy: Hans, for example, has a relentless stutter that only goes away when he sings. The doctor is afforded countless opportunities for improvised slapstick, particularly during the operation scene when he mistakenly transfers part of Joe's and the King's brains "without losing a single drop of blood!", as he reassures us. The Queen laughably runs roughshod over everything — think Carol Burnett as Maggie Thatcher here. If nothing else, Bliss does write some delightfully whacked out scenes for his oddball characters.

But the problem is, that's all he does. The score, even by juvenile operetta standards, is paper thin, and it seems that even the publisher had issues with the final product, as there's a moment in the first act when an entertainment is to be performed for the Prince. It's noted that you can ignore the "English Dance" in the score and use just anything else you want. I dont know about you, but that seems a bit cold. Or slapdash on the part of the composer. Or maybe both.

Still, that chill is merited, to some degree. The music aside, the lyrics use the same device — the "story song" — a little too frequently for the numbers to have any real impact. Hans tells us about being a tinker. The Princess tells us about being a princess. The Queen... well, you get the idea. Even the doctor gets a star turn, but it's doled out in the same three-verse/one-chorus architecture Bliss uses for everything else. When he's not using the device, usually during the large ensemble numbers, he writes four lines and has the chorus repeat them... over and over again, to the point where you no longer care about the life of a sailor on the open seas.

Ultimately, THE SAUCY HOLLANDAISE doesnt quite know what it wants to be, whether vaudeville act or romance. And in the process, it turns out to be neither. For that matter, by the end we dont even know for sure if the Prince actually got the Princess. Perhaps we're not supposed to know.

Not that it would make all that much difference anyway.

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