Beans, Beans, The Magical Flute
Annex Theater is always doing “a thing”. And the thing about their things is that they almost always work. Let’s make an old television series into a two hour play or put our audience inside of a lunatic asylum or stage an entire sci-fi novel or, as in the case with The Magic Flute, direct an opera on a playing space the size of a postage stamp. These productions always come with a high degree of difficulty. They’re worth it. You’d think, what with their flawless season planning and how almost everyone universally loves their shows, that they company members would be insufferable pricks, but that’s not so. In fact, every time I go, I’m struck by how fucking sweet they all seem. I think what makes their things sing is that the company approaches the works with actual respect instead of studied irony. Yes, they acknowledge the flaws in their source material (the original Flute, for example, is miserably sexist) but they also love it and aren’t ashamed to show that. If you’re worried that The Magic Flute is going to be stripped down or chipped at to fit into the confines of The Chicken Box, don’t. This is a full version, fully staged, fully throated opera that pulls out all the stops. The plots of these things are usually pretty bubble-headed and this one is no exception (when you write music like Mozart did, no one cares if the story is stupid). Handsome, dudely Prince Tamino (K Froom) is saved from a big ol’ snake by the Lady Spirits (Anais Naharro, Lajari Anne and Shannon Ziegler), servants of The Queen of the Night (Allison Clendaniel). When he wakes up, he falls in love with the Queen’s daughter, Princess Pamina (Natanya Washer) merely from seeing her portrait. Pamina has been taken from her mother by the evil (but is he) Sarastro (John O’Loughlin), the Sun King. Tamino vows to go and find Pamina and so The Queen not only promises him her daughter but bestows some gifts on him for protection on the journey. One is the famous magic flute and the other is bird/man/birdman Papageno (Ishai Barnoy). Much heroism, comically instant romance, tests of love and mysterious motivations ensue. One of the things that sets this Flute apart from the many, many others is director Evan Moritz’s decision to weave the Lady Spirits throughout the story. Naharro, Anne and Ziegler steal every scene that they’re in and the narrative starts to feel almost as if it is they that are moving it along and effecting the change. It helps that their voices (especially Naharro, who acts as the defacto leader of the trio) are gorgeous and blend effortlessly, and also that they’re not just standing there waiting to sing; they are engaged and acting the entire time. The choice removes some of that nasty sexism from the story and also elevates the chorus, a traditionally bummer casting (there’s only so many times you can hear that “no small parts” bullshit) to the star of the show. It’s a bold, smart move that is echoed in the expansion of the roles of Sarastro’s priests (Conner Kizer and Alton Lind). These two have some great, small, comic moments that also seem to comment on the action of the play and almost make them audience stand-ins. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of leads here and multiple divalicious moments. I just saw Natanya Washer in The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe and was struck by her singular beauty and almost ridiculously wide-eyed innocent air, here she plays it to the hilt as the sweet Pamina. She’s the real deal, too, a genuine opera singer with a bio that makes me feel super unaccomplished. Her voice sounds like a million fucking dollars, which is probably what you’d have to pay to hear her sing in any other context, so this is a damned steal. It’s about as close to perfect as you can get. Allison Clendaniel moves up and down The Queen of the Night’s showstopping arpeggios with spine tingling ease and passion – she also makes you believe that she will definitely cut a bitch. John O’Loughlin has one of those deep, deep, deep as a river voices that feel as old as time and also like that part in the school hearing test where you think you might be going deaf. Ishai Barnoy isn’t quite up to their level vocally, but what he lacks in that department he makes up for with about eighteen billion units of charm as Papageno. I always really enjoy Barnoy, especially when he’s doing his comic relief thing. He’s absolutely adorable here, winning and whining his way through a part that he definitely puts his unique spin on. He’s an instant audience favorite and it is well deserved. K Froom is hilarious as the studly Prince Tamino. They run this role for all that it’s worth with a beautiful, syrup smooth voice that is just dripping in swag. I got a whiff of a little Into the Woods vibe here, which was just great. Okay, so, all that is fine, but half the point of going to an opera are the sets and costumes and this did not disappoint! Costume design by Anna Tringali was at times simple but always on point – she chooses her moments and one of those moments include the Queen’s light up dress and hair. Sets by Doug Johnson are stunning. The stage unfolds in soft fabric leaves that the actors pull across like pages in a gigantic storybook. Not only is this wildly beautiful and inspired, it’s practical too, as the play moves between locations with startling quickness. The painting is lovely watercolor Egyptian vistas that go from light and feathery to dark and foreboding in the blink of an eye. The score (David Crandall and Jacob Budenz) keeps things fresh and interesting – it’s kind of like Mozart crossed with a Jack-in-the-Box playing inside of a video game console, but, you know, subtle. I mostly got where lights by Mason Ross were coming from (I especially liked the nod to operatic convention with the uplit footlights – they’re even decorated with scarabs!) but I thought he could have dumped the messy Christmas lights in the audience space, which were distracting. There are puppets, too, by Margaret Peterson. These things are so fucking cute, y’all. My companion can attest that I practically had to be sedated when I saw that hedgehog.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Ohhh, guys, this Magic Flute is brilliantly delightful (and, I might add, an excellent and accessible introduction to opera for younger patrons). It has wings, wings! These people aren’t just passing notes, y’all, they’re doing it full out and extremely well. Nothing has been lost and much has been gained in this reworking of a classic piece of art. See it if you can, my gut is that it’s going to sell out.
Running at Baltimore Annex Theatre until June 14th
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