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23 Dec 2018

POP Bohème: Melodic, Manic, Misbehaving Hipsters

Pacific Opera Project is in its fourth annual, sold out run of Puccini’s La bohème: AKA 'The Hipsters', and it may seem at first blush that nothing succeeds like success.

Pacific Opera Project La bohème: AKA 'The Hipsters'

A review by James Sohre

Above: Cast

Photo courtesy of Pacific Opera Project.

 

To my un-Hipster sensibility that thought might casually be amended to “nothing exceeds like excess.”

The good news is that the prodigiously talented Josh Shaw is commendably doing triple duty as stage director, executive director and artistic director. I am worn out just writing it. He has a fourth accomplishment as devisor of the Supertitles, which perhaps was one “job too far.” More on that below. More good news news is that the production is beautifully cast and the vocal accomplishments are substantial.

On the evening I attended, tenor JJ Lopez’s singing was a quiet revelation as Rodolfo, his alluring lyric tenor having ample spinto leanings to fully surmount the demands of this quintessential Puccini hero. Mr. Lopez’s stage demeanor was engaging, his attractive presence (enhanced by blue horn-rimmed glasses as featured on a likeness of Puccini in the promotional graphics) allowed us to believe Mimi’s instant infatuation, and his stylistic acumen was always in evidence. This was an assured, accomplished role traversal.

As the star-crossed Mimi, Maya Rothfuss’s plaintive, limpid soprano struck just the right combination of pathos and calculated determination as she wove a spell over her unsuspecting poet. Ms. Rothfuss sang with veristic poise and dramatic understanding. Moreover, she is a lovely, slender woman who was totally believable as the hard-on-her-luck seamstress.

Ben Lowe contributed a stirring Marcello thanks to a burnished, sizable baritone that was richly deployed. Mr. Lowe is a major talent, his uninhibited acting balanced by his meticulously controlled, beautifully calculated vocalizing. His and Lopez’s memorable duet was among the evening’s musical highpoints.

Aubrey Trujillo-Scarr was a glam, leggy Musetta, who prowled the stage like Ann-Margret on a mission. Her gleaming lyric soprano fell easily on the ear, easily encompassed the role’s requirements, and she mined a good deal of nuance from her well-modulated portrayal.

Vincent Grana provided a boyishly appealing turn as Colline, his coltish demeanor wedded to a mellifluous, smoothly produced bass baritone of considerable accomplishment. So appealing was his singing, one longed that Maestro Puccini had given him even more to sing, although his brief Coat Aria was rendered with heartfelt sheen. E. Scott Levin was a committed, animated Schaunard whose characterful outpourings were a nice complement to the others in the quartet of male soloists. If he fudged a top note or two, he was always involved in the action and was an effective comic presence.

William Grundler was not particularly well served by triple casting as Benoit, Alcindoro, and Parpignol. First, he is a solid tenor, making him well equipped as Parpignol but less suitable as a candidate for the remaining two baritone roles. He essayed both of those with loose-limbed, conscientious attention, but the amusing, blustering gravitas that a lower voiced singer can bring to these roles somewhat eluded him.

Josh Shaw’s fifth (!) job as set designer resulted in a competent, contemporary, fluid environment that was straight forward and effective. I especially liked the use of the stage left door to the garret that made good use of the natural access stairs to the stage in the theatre of the Highland Park Ebell Club.

Maggie Green and Vanessa Stewart’s initial garish costumes of holiday-ugly attire for the men were more admirable for their audacious consistency than their visual appeal. Mimi’s muted contemporary look and Musetta’s sequined mini dress were far more revelatory of the characters. I found I wanted more delineation and contrast between Mr. Grundler’s looks in his tripling.

Music Director Parisa Zaeri played valiantly at the keyboard, although when the piano was placed behind the garret wall, the effect was somewhat muted. Why not put the piano on the house floor out front? The musical ensemble was generally congenial, although there were some releases that might have been enhanced by a monitor so that singers could see the music director.

Mr. Shaw’s staging offered lots of manic macho interaction that contrasted well with the more sedate stage pictures when the ladies were present. The constant motion in the first half of Act I was a bit dizzying, but it was mostly infectious fun. The Café Momus scene often finds all the characters’ interjecting comments, and it might have benefitted from more pointed focus. Still, the playing space was used effectively and the entrances through the house added immediacy and audience appeal to the mix.

For all its many strengths, clever ideas, and good intentions, my great reservation of this popular run is with the “Surtitles” for the performances. They are not often enough translations as is usual, but rather one-liners that generate highly jocular responses, at the expense of the piece at hand.

In an attempt to make the piece “hipster relevant,” Mr. Shaw has gone to extreme lengths to coax audiences to laugh at La boheme. Few of Luigi Illica’s libretto texts are translated per se, but rather turned into self-conscious local references. The result threatens to turn the show into a laff-riot accompanied by incidental opera singing.

Audiences seem to be “reading” their experience rather than being engaged by it. On many, many occasions the text, misrepresenting the original, causes audiences to cackle so loudly as to obliterate the singing. And it encourages patrons to anticipate everything as a laugh line. When Rodolfo observes that Mimi does not look well, it should not generate the yucks it did. Nor should the joining of hands before Che gelida manina. Nor should any of the ensuing two arias. And yet, unwelcome chuckling intruded throughout. Blatant changes are made. When the boys are chanting (Café) Momus! Momus! Momus! the text reads The York! The York! The York! As a visitor, I don’t know what that is. . .a bar on nearby Figueroa perhaps?

With another revival of the Hipster La bohème promised next year, I urge: Please edit the content of the titles and moderate the laughs to meaningful resonances that do not remove audiences from the gently tragic emotional core of Puccini’s masterpiece.

With this fifth annual edition already being planned, I am betting on the seriously talented Josh Shaw to be able to rein in the hijinks to better balance them with the enduring sentiment of Puccini’s appealing masterwork. On the upside, perhaps this unbridled romp will prove to be a gateway experience for new audiences to attend other, more sober POP events like La Traviata or Carmen. If so, it was arguably worth the silliness.

Truth in advertising: 95% of the audience at POP’s La bohème: AKA 'The Hipsters' seemed to be having a great time. Ultimately, for this viewer, it proved to be the “wrong” time.

James Sohre

La bohème: AKA 'The Hipsters'

Rodolfo: JJ Lopez; Mimi: Maya Rothfuss; Marcello: Ben Lowe; Musetta: Aubrey Trujillo-Scarr; Schaunard: E. Scott Levin; Colline: Vincent Grana; Benoit/Parpignol/Alcindoro: William Grundler; Music Director/Pianist: Parisa Zaeri; Director/Set Design: Josh Shaw; Costume Design: Maggie Green and Vanessa Stewart

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