ALO's hometown take on Die Fledermaus with wit, affection, enthusiasm, and style from all parties
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., June 6, 2008
Dell Hall at the Long Center, through June 7
Running time: 3 hrs
The familiar is, in the parlance of the funny business, comedy gold. We enjoy having the things we know held up before us – the old "mirror up to nature" gag, in Shakespeare's words – and if the looking glass happens to be a bit warped, all the better; seeing something familiar distorted in a comical way gives us a giddy kick. It's an idea that was clearly understood by every artist involved in the production of The Bat, Austin Lyric Opera's resetting of Strauss' Die Fledermaus in our own hometown. The show is stuffed with more local jokes than the Ann Richards Bridge has little winged mammals, and they fly in as steady a stream as those flutter-mice emerging for their nightly feed. Now, to those of the mind that Austin's sense of self is inflated enough as it is, it may feel like the last thing the city needs is an operetta in which every song, every line, every set-piece and outfit is fixated on life in the live music blah-de-blah-blah. But while The Bat is unapologetically Austin-centric and finds plenty about the city to celebrate, it has a keen sense of our excesses, too – our willful eccentricities, our hippie ideology, and, yes, our navel-gazing self-centeredness – and reflects them back at us with the exaggeration of a fun-house mirror. In short, it gives us a good ribbing and does so with such wit and affection and style that it's pure pleasure to be kidded.
Certainly, much of the tone is set by the text as reinvented by Lyova Rosanoff and Steve Saugey (lyrics) and Shaun Wainwright-Branigan (dialogue). All three have spent years in the vaudeville training ground of Esther's Follies, and their work here shows the same intelligence, ingenuity, and polish that have propelled the Follies' satirical sketches for 30 years. The writing is tart and taut, delivering maximum laughs in minimal time, so as to pack in more gags and pointed references (like Wainwright-Branigan's sassy swipe at the parking fiasco that dogged Carmen, ALO's debut in the Long Center). And while Rosanoff and Saugey have been setting parody lyrics to well-known tunes for decades, their achievement here is stunning: three acts of new lyrics that nestle snugly into Strauss' music – which is no mean feat – while spinning out all manner of topical commentary, from the virtues of the margarita to Austinites' notion that we live in Camelot, with a cleverness and sophistication that rivals Tom Lehrer and Peter Schickele. Their work is so smart and funny that even though the singers serve up the lyrics clearly, you're loath to look away from the supertitles for fear of missing a single joke.
The Bat wouldn't fly, however, without artists who could realize the fun-house Austin summoned up by the writing. Scene designer David Nancarrow sets us squarely in River City with a painted backdrop of the Capitol, flanked by the Frost Bank building and UT Tower, while costumer Susan Branch conjures a host of local icons – Stevie Ray! Lance! The Hyde Park Bar & Grill fork! Peter Pan with a putter! – in inventive and lavish costumes for the second-act masquerade ball (here set at the Driskill and using actual furniture from the historic hotel). David Small sets the whole show in motion as the revenge-minded von Falke, and his wry smile and slow drag on a Shiner longneck show how a good ol' boy gets even. As the man in the doctor's crosshairs, Joseph Evans' Steiner looks like Cliff Barnes but acts like J.R. Ewing – sneaking around, dissembling, and catting around behind his wife's back – though he hasn't a clue that von Falke is roping him in or that the Luckenbach oil baroness he's been hitting on is really his wife. As Rosie, Suzanne Ramo is all big hair and brass and is never funnier than when fending off the amorous advances of Tonio Di Paolo's hammy Italian tenor, Alfredo. Then there's Adela, the Steiners' maid who hungers for Tinseltown stardom; as played by Alicia Berneche, she's a kind of Latina Lucy, delightfully animated and funny as she chases big dreams with unlikely schemes. It's conceivable that these performers would be just as much fun to watch if they were playing this out in 19th century Vienna, but it sure feels like the Austin setting has sparked something special in their work – which is also a tribute to director Rod Caspers, who enhances the Texas-ness at every turn but keeps The Bat zipping along like a classic farce.
As long as the show is, it never falters, never wears out its welcome, never loses that sense of surprise and appeal. As the curtain falls, The Bat is still a treat – a peculiarly, delightfully Austin treat, smooth and sweet like two scoops of Amy's ice cream but with that kick from a snort of Tito's Vodka.