March 27 2010 12:00 AM

MSU opera has high Juliettitude, low Romeosity

An insidious thought came to me during MSU Opera Theatre’s
energetic “Miami Vice” remake of Charles Gounod’s 1867 Shakespearean opera
“Romeo et Juliette.” I could flee the hall at halftime — that’s March madness
for entr’acte — and walk away whistling the happy marriage duet that ends the
opera’s first half. By the time stabbed and poisoned bodies started to pile up
on stage, I could have been sipping a latte at Biggby’s while catching up on
Kyle Melinn’s column. Even the opera’s doomed lovers agreed to this in
principle: Better to slip out of the bedchamber while the nightingale is still
singing, before the lark summons the cruel dawn.

But I didn’t, and I’m glad. I would have missed the best
part of the show.

Director Melanie Helton wrote in the program notes that she
moved the opera’s action from 14th-century Verona to 1980s Miami to
save money on costumes, because Miami’s clashing gangs resemble Shakespeare’s
feuding families, and also because Helton herself is a creature of the ‘80s.
(She lived around the corner from Studio 54 as a young New York singer.)

All of that may be true, but the ‘80s theme didn’t pay off
for me until just after intermission, when Jackie King strutted on stage for
her a spectacular girl-plays-boy turn as Stephano, Romeo’s cousin. Friday
night, King cavorted across the stage in male drag, hair upswept, phony
moustache glued on, boombox on her shoulder, singing a lovely aria in a
completely assured, ringing voice. Close your eyes and it was perfect Gounod;
open them and it was “Three’s Company.” King had it both ways, straight and
farcical, at once, and pulled off the paradox with no seeming effort.

The MSU production’s 1980s trappings include outré dance
moves, a poolside setting (with pretentious Ionic columns that could have come
to 1980s Miami from 14th-century Verona), plenty of loud print
shirts, sequined dresses, sunglasses and open shirts. When one of the Montague
boys sings from the diaphragm, you know he is, because you can see his

By now, it’s become a counter-cliché to drag classic operas
into weird times and settings, but in this show, the colorful 1980s trappings
did a lot to keep eyes and ears open. Fitting Gounod’s fusty, melodramatic
score with traditional, lacy trappings would be like stacking doilies on top of

Instead, MSU had Gounod’s French libretto, already a
translation of Shakespeare, re-translated into English for supertitles
projected over the stage. Thus, at three removes, Shakespeare’s sublime English
is reduced to down-to-Earth phrases like “Who’s that guy who put his mask on
when I showed up?”

Most of all, two hallmarks of MSU Opera Theatre — great
singing and complicated, multi-layered stage action — helped keep this hoary
opera in the land of the living.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of bits of deftly managed bits of
business livened up the molasses-thick score. Juliet grabbed a dummy microphone
to sing her opening aria, giving it a slight tap to see if it was “on.” (She
didn’t need it.) The Montague boys cut up so broadly behind Mercutio’s big aria
you wish you could press “rewind” to find out what he sang. Even the chorus
pulled off complicated collective bits, such as posing for a group photograph,
while winding up a big number.

The principals all were in fine voice, and most had more to
offer than singing. As Juliette, soprano Elizabeth Toy seamlessly fused acting,
singing and movement into an integral, convincing and completely seductive
performance. By virtue of sheer energy and talent, Toy is in a class by
herself, but she doesn’t sit on her gift or let it run amok. She’s always plotting
the calculus of emotion, from charm to anger to despair to lust, in such a way
that all the audience sees is a smooth curve. And she never switches herself
off. Even when she stands still, she holds her arms slightly apart and
shoulders forward, ready to pounce on life.

Friday’s Romeo, Griffin Candey, has a strong bronze voice to
match Toy’s silver, with real thrills in the high register. Close your eyes,
and you could hear his voice intertwine warmly with Toy’s, especially in the
second act’s bedroom scene.

Unfortunately, Candey doesn’t have one-tenth the stage
presence Toy has, and the charisma deficit took all the charge out of their
love scenes. Dressed like a Peanuts character in the same blue T-shirt all
night, Candey sported a sugar bowl hairdo similar to that of Ken Burns, and
about the same level of Romeosity. While she sang to him of passion, he looked
at her like a center fielder waiting for the ground crew to finish.

As a priest who tries to make peace between the feuding
Capulets and Montagues, Matthew Scollin sang his troubled role with understated
brilliance. Though his character is not drawn fully in the libretto, Scollin
exuded a paralyzing frustration at his man-in-the-middle status, earning
audience sympathy a huge cheer at the end of the evening.

Toy, Candey, Scollin and King will return for Sunday’s show;
a different cast will appear Saturday.

As the head Capulet, Jonathan Kirkland contributed gravitas,
charm, and a mighty baritone that clamped down on every note like a steam
shovel. Kirkland will be back both Saturday and Sunday.

Rafael Jimenez and his pit orchestra ably handled Gounod’s
angelic gl-l-l-l-l-lings on harp and ominous oompahs in the brass, along with
somber interludes, happy waltzes, churning fugues and many other moods. The
strings pretty much held together, the winds and brass provided strong
definition and backbone, and the flute player did a fetching impression of a

“Romeo et Juliette”
Michigan State University Concert Auditorium
8 p.m. Saturday, March 27; 3 p.m. Sunday, March 28
$20 general admission, $18 for seniors, $10 for students

(517) 432-2000