Babes on the March – A Visit to Victor Herbert’s Toyland, with MasterVoices

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A REVERIE: on Victor Herbert’s wonderful and terrifying children’s operatic dreamscape, Babes in Toyland, as presented and performed by MasterVoices (formerly the Collegiate Chorale), the Orchestra of Saint Luke’s, and a large cast of principals at Carnegie Hall on April 27; with one additional performance scheduled at the Tilles Center of LIU Post in Brookville, New York on April 29, 2017 at 7 p.m.

Dear Diary:

On Thursday night, I visited Toyland! Or at least I woke up believing I did. It seemed so real, I’m going to talk to you about it like it really happened.

But I guess I know it was only a dream.

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[Editor’s Note: the foregoing, as well as what follows, is excerpted from a recent fit of automatic writing, presumed to have been dictated by an aesthetic young spirit-familiar reared in an enviably more innocent age. It appears to reference the semi-staged MasterVoices concert version of Victor Herbert’s operetta Babes in Toyland performed April 27 at Carnegie Hall (and earlier previewed here). Every attempt has been made to pin down specific allusions herein and elucidate them for the reader in bracketed commentary.]

I don’t think I should tell any grownups about it (even if there were some grownups there – grownups who acted a lot like kids!)

Orchestra of St. Luke's, Photo: Richard Termine

Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Photo: Richard Termine

There were also people with big shiny musical instruments, and they played them so well I just wanted to listen and listen forever! They made all different kinds of music – all of it so beautiful I could almost taste it, like it was candy I could put in my pocket and take home for later. [Almost certainly, the reference is to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, playing Victor Herbert’s magnificent score.]

Parts of Toyland were scary – but a lot of it (even some of the scary parts, actually) were really funny, too.

And there were parts I think I’ll probably only understand when I’m older. At least I hope I will!

And that’s why I’m writing this to you, Diary – so if I forget any of this when I’m way older, you can remind me what I saw Thursday night.

I hope I’ll believe you.

Ted Sperling, Photo: Charles Chessler

Ted Sperling, Photo: Charles Chessler

At the beginning, it was a little like being in school – a big, beautiful schoolroom with so many fancy rows of seats [this is presumed to be New York City’s Carnegie Hall]. And a tall teacher with glasses (I think he was a teacher) was up on a stage in the front and he talked to us a little bit at first and was very friendly. People clapped, and then he took out a skinny stick and turned away from us to face the people with all the shiny instruments. [We take this to be Ted Sperling, musical director of the choral group MasterVoices.]

Then a second teacher – a lady teacher, very smart and nice – started to tell us interesting things [this must be actress Blair Brown, the narrator of the MasterVoices concert version of Babes in Toyland], like how the dream we were about to see was from so long time ago that some of the first people who were ever in it were also around when Abraham Lincoln was shot! Gosh!

Christopher Fitzgerald, Photo: Tina Tyrell

Christopher Fitzgerald, Photo: Tina Tyrell

The dream started, and at first I was a little nervous, because there was this bad man named Uncle Barnaby in a black cape and big black hat [this is known to have been actor Jonathan Freeman] who wanted to take money away from his nephew and niece, two kids he pretended to love and was supposed to take care of. Their names were Alan and Jane [characters played by Christopher Fitzgerald and Lauren Worsham].

Alan and Jane didn’t know that Uncle Barnaby was mean, so they trusted him when he told them to go with two funny crooks named Roderigo and Gonzorgo [characters realized by Jeffrey Schecter and Chris Sullivan]. The kids thought the crooks were just going to mind them for a while, but really they were going to kill them! (Of course, Alan and Jane never really got killed, but Uncle Barnaby kept trying all night anyway; they were just too lucky, I guess!)

Lauren Worsham

Lauren Worsham

The kids were put on a ship and there was a big storm (well, the smart lady told us there was a storm). And when the people with the instruments played, the music was so great that I really thought I saw the storm – and saw the ship sink, too! That was scary!

And it was like that all night – this great music made you see things. Not just scary things, either. I saw a wonderful sunrise – best one ever, maybe. And, later, I saw a big moth turn into a butterfly right before my eyes (well, in my imagination I did, because of that music). I even saw a big spider fight with an angry bear! That was one of those funny and scary at the same time things – and pretty weird, too, I guess. (But I liked it a lot.)

Alan was always wearing disguises and pretending to be different people – like a gypsy lady who did a funny dance in a song called “Floretta,” and all kinds of different people with funny accents in another song called “Song of the Poet.”

Kelli O'Hara, Photo: Laura Marie Duncan

Kelli O’Hara, Photo: Laura Marie Duncan

And there were many other interesting people, too. Like a girl named Mary Contrary who was in love with Alan. She was so pretty and sang like an angel [the reference is to actress Kelli O’Hara]. She had lots of songs, some with funny names, like “Barney O’Flynn” (but that song was really beautiful) and “Beatrice Barefacts” (where Mary gave advice to a funny policeman [the latter clearly actor Michael Kostroff]) and “Before and After” (she sang that one with Alan, about how boyfriends and girlfriends talk very different to each other from the way married people do; grown-ups laughed a lot; I guess I’ll understand that one better when I’m older, Diary).

Actually, everyone in the dream sang great songs. Jane sang one about her own name that I could listen to her sing again and again. (And I think she liked herself so much that she’d do it, too). And another one she sang with Tom Tom, the Piper’s Son, called “Our Castle in Spain.”

There was a song for Alan and Jane and Mary and Tom Tom all together, when they were all lost in the forest – a great song, called “Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep.” It started out spooky – because the forest was so creepy – but it turned into this really nice lullaby that I’d like to hear at bedtime any night at all.

Jay Armstrong Johnson

Jay Armstrong Johnson

And I shouldn’t forget to mention that Tom Tom, who was in love with Jane, had some really good songs, too – like when he sang to his sister, Bopeep “Never Mind Bopeep, We Will Find Your Sheep”; and, later, when he sang “Toyland.” That song was really sweet and pretty, but it made some people cry a little. (I guess that’s another grownup thing.) Anyway, Tom Tom was really good – not just singing but also dancing in a way that was almost like he was going to fly, kind of like Peter Pan [the performer referenced is no doubt Jay Armstrong Johnson].

There was also Tom Tom’s sister, Jill [played by Anna Landy] – I liked her a lot. And all of Tom Tom’s other brothers and sisters, too. And their mother, named Widow Piper [Nina Hennessey] had a funny song with the two crooks, called “If I were a Man Like That.” (I guess those crooks weren’t totally bad guys; or Widow Piper just liked all kinds of people, maybe too much).

But all these wonderful, interesting people didn’t always just sing by themselves – not by a long shot! There was this big group of other singers joining in and making it all sound so magical and gigantic that I wanted to sing along myself [obviously, the celebrated 130 mixed choral voices of the MasterVoices group].

Bill Irwin

Bill Irwin

Oh, and one of the best parts of the whole dream was in Toyland itself (a lot of stuff happens before you actually get to Toyland), where at first you think that everything is always happy and it’s always Christmas. But there’s this guy who makes all the toys, the Master Toymaker, and everyone thinks he’s so good and nice, but in secret he’s really this amazing bad guy [as brought to full, fiendish physical life by master clown Bill Irwin]. He wants to put evil spirits into all the toys so they will kill all the children. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either! But that’s what he tries to do!

Well, he was very scary, but also really great – the way he danced and did funny, wacky movements and made such funny faces! I can see why all the kids were tricked by him, because it was so much fun just watching him. He even played tricks on people sitting there watching the dream; and he had really funny things to do with Alan, too – like when Alan dresses up as one of the Toymaker’s toy soldiers and tries to stop the bad things from happening to the kids.

Oh, but that Toymaker gets what he deserved in the end! And the whole dream turned out to be a really happy one, after all.

Boy, I never want to forget that dream. I wish I could dream one like it every night. Thank you for keeping the memories of it for me, Diary.

I’m going to go to bed now, Diary, and – who knows? – maybe I can figure out how to get to Toyland just one more time.

One encore performance of this semi-staged concert version of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland is scheduled at LIU Post’s Tilles Center in Brookville, New York on April 29, 2017. Information is available here.

The presentation features MasterVoices, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a first-rate cast of principals, all conducted by MasterVoices musical director Ted Sperling, with stage direction by Sperling and additional musical staging by Andrew Palermo, As reviewed here, it was seen at its single York City performance on Thursday, April 27, 2017 at 7 p.m. in the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage of Carnegie Hall.


About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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