Mademoiselle Modiste

If your idea of American operetta is Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy singing "Indian Love Call," then let Mel Miller show you the antidote. He's revived Victor Herbert's Mademoiselle Modiste for what I think is the first time in 75 years, and quite apart from the splendid educational value of such an enterprise, the really good news is that the show is a lot of fun. Dated, sure; but fun.

The mademoiselle of the title is Fifi, a beautiful, pert shopgirl who works at Mme. Cecile's Hat Shop in Paris. She's the store's best salesgirl, and Mme. Cecile is determined to keep her, to which end she's decided to have her ne'er-do-well son Gaston, who dabbles in art, marry Fifi. Fifi, however, has other plans: she's in love with an army captain named Etienne (but Etienne's uncle, the snooty Comte de St. Mar, refuses to allow his nephew to consort with someone so far beneath him), and—as she confides charmingly to a rich American customer—she wants to be a singer. (Her big first act number is called "If I Were On the Stage," a truly delicious tour de force that climaxes with the lovely waltz "Kiss Me Again," a song that you may be surprised to recognize; it's performed with marvelous panache by the lovely Heather Parcells, who is this show's thoroughly delightful ingenue.)

Act Two takes place a year later, at the Comte's chateau. Fifi has become a huge star, thanks in part to that American gentleman I mentioned, who loaned her enough money to enable her to get a start in show business. He has brought her to the Comte's residence to sing at a charity bazaar. Fifi is pleased to learn that Etienne, contrary to her expectations, has been pining for her, and together the lovers devise a plot to ensure that the Comte will bless their union. It's utterly improbable, and details are forgotten and dispensed with almost as soon as they're brought up: to call Henry Blossom's libretto casual is to give it excessive weight. The book of this comic opera is only an excuse to frame the lovely songs composed by Herbert (lyrics are also by Blossom).

Happily, the songs are charming. Fifi's big second act number is a fluttery aria called "The Nightingale and the Star" and she also performs, with a chorus of members of Etienne's regiment, the rousing march "The Mascot of the Troop," which I enjoyed quite a bit. Gaston has two comic numbers that echo Gilbert & Sullivan without seeming too-pale imitations: "Love Me, Love My Dog" is a silly ballad about the origin of that (alleged) proverb, while "Ze English Language" is a knock-em-dead show stopper that Ric Ryder is going to truly make his own as soon as he gets off book (Musicals Tonight! shows are concert productions that the actors perform script-in-hand).

As Etienne, Bram Heidinger has the sweet "The Time and the Place and the Girl," which he puts over nicely with his warm tenor. Maxime Alvarez de Toledo, who plays Etienne's friend Rene, also has a standout solo, "The Dear Little Girl Who Is Good." Kristine Nevins has fun with a comic specialty, "The Keokuk Culture Club," in which the American tourist that she plays rhymes her way through lists of the topical issues of 1905. Best of all, there's the rich, full voice of Gary Harger delivering the exuberant "I Want What I Want When I Want It."

Miller and his director Thomas Mills have assembled an extremely strong cast for this show, including, in addition to the aforementioned, the wry, understated Roger Rifkin as Fifi's American benefactor and the formidable Leila Martin as Mme. Cecile. The rest of the ensemble consists of Richard Barth, Jennifer Bowles, Caitlin Burke, Heather Dornoff, Francis Dumaurier, Stephanie Fravel, John F. Herget, Hannah Knowlton, Erik McEwen, Susan Molloy, Megan Opalinski, and Blake Whyte; they make lovely music together. (Casting director is Stephen DeAngelis.)

Mills's staging is brisk and witty, emphasizing, as it should, the music. And before I forget, let me mention that the songs are all sung unamplified, to the expert accompaniment of James Stenborg on piano. Herbert's melodies are golden, and Blossom's lyrics are generally cleverer than our preconceived notions of a 1905 score would allow.

I had a great time at Mademoiselle Modiste, and I learned some things about American musical theatre history too. The juxtaposition of Gilbert & Sullivan-style arias and comic songs on a hoary book as hackneyed and populist as anything George M. Cohan ever cooked up is a surprise: a fascinating one. Musicals Tonight! is the best and most economical way for musical theatre fans to satisfy their urges to see the forgotten and ignored touchstones of the art. Don't let those turgid old MGM movies deter you from seeing a real live classic American operetta, for real and live. You will, I think, be pleasantly surprised.