Review: ‘Robin Hood’ at Victorian Lyric Opera Company

Rob from the rich, give to the poor ̶  a theme with universal and enduring appeal, at least among 99% of us.

Jasmine Mays and Marybeth Verchot. Photo by Harvey Levine.
Jasmine Mays and Marybeth Verchot. Photo by Harvey Levine.

The centuries-old legend of benevolent British outlaw Robin Hood has pranced across diverse art forms from traveling minstrel show to video games. But there’s more to it than wealth transfer and ambition. Only in operatic form can one appreciate the rich love story behind the folklore.

And Victorian Lyric Opera Company’s frolicking production of De Koven-Smith-Scott’s 1890 operetta Robin Hood is all about stealing hearts. It’s a complicated tangle of mistaken identities, disguises and round-robin affairs that all get straightened out in the end. But fair warning to patrons: You’ll fall for each principal and comprimario, one by one.

First allow the sweet ambrosia of a 30-piece orchestra, chiseled in stereophonic sound by Joseph Sorge, to waft over you. What a treat! From fanfare to stealthy, sonorous woodwinds then bouncy carousel strains, the overture is merry-go-Round One.

Curtains up on an ingenious set designed by Osbel Susman Pena  ̶  an entire village implied and compressed in quaint relief  ̶  a cathedral, tavern-inn, jail  ̶  against a backdrop of silhouetted, spidery streamers that summon Sherwood Forest. It seems each player takes a turn mounting a sturdy wishing well, rocks and other anchoring pieces.

A capable chorus bows to springtime (some of the men’s moves may make you giddy), but Jasmine Mays as chief milkmaid Annabel quickly takes the “goodly company” up several notches with an elegant, ravishing tone. (The roles of Annabel and Maid Marian are performed by alternating sopranos, and I felt lucky to witness Mays and the sublime Audrey Kline as Marian.)

Feast on an array of young talent here; let’s just rattle them off, because these “kids” can not only sing, they can act on a scale not always achieved in operetta. And I can call them kids, because they all likely have long, fruitful careers ahead.

Playing opposite Annabel in a pants role is Marybeth Verchot, as Allan-a-Dale. Her soaring mezzo – yes, off-the-charts soaring – wows with romantic curry. She’s also a consummate actress from archer’s cap to toe boot, whether in the foreground or background, moving any scene into convincing territory. She and Mays together give goosebumps.

Kevin Schellhase’s lush baritone provides backbone and musical muscle as Little John. Not only are he and Cornelius “C.J.” David (Robert of Huntington/Robin Hood) a dynamic duo in princely good looks, they slay vocally.

David’s blushing tenor coils around each note like green vine candy, and when paired in “Within This Hour We Met” with Kline’s silvery soprano, we sense the fleshy intertwining of lovers  ̶  they are fabulous individually but orgasmic together (can we say “orgasmic” here?). Seriously, what thievery is this, that David’s sprat form belies a meaty Italian dish?

It only gets better in their Act II “Troubadour’s Serenade” and Act III “There Will Come a Time” couplings, when Kline’s gowns transform her into the ethereal jewel she is. She sings often of birds and brooks while demonstrating refined control over silky vocals —  floating, alighting, hopping and changing dynamics like water pressure in a tap.

From L to R: Blair Eig (Will Scarlet), Gary Sullivan (Sheriff of Nottingham), Kevin Schellhase (Little John), Tom Goode (Friar Tuck), Timothy Ziese (Sir Guy of Gisborne) and C.J. David (Robin Hood). Photo by Harvey Levine.
From L to R: Blair Eig (Will Scarlet), Gary Sullivan (Sheriff of Nottingham), Kevin Schellhase (Little John), Tom Goode (Friar Tuck), Timothy Ziese (Sir Guy of Gisborne), and C.J. David (Robin Hood). Photo by Harvey Levine.

Timothy Ziese, as Sir Guy of Gisborne, Robin Hood’s romantic rival, seems born to the stage. He delights with doggerel dexterity. In cahoots with the comic genius of Gary Sullivan (Sheriff of Nottingham), they bring down the house in their Act II drunken scene.

Act II, not III, is the evening’s climax as all the magic directed by Gregory Scott Stuart coalesces. Even the set ramps up to include a realistic fire pit. Sullivan’s high-class buffoonery is unleashed as he impersonates a lowly tinker trying to ferret out Robin Hood, whom he does not realize is the disenfranchised, disinherited Robert of Huntington.

The showstopper is “Tinkers’ Song,” in which percussionists, props, Stuart’s spirited blocking and boisterous men reel in any stray attentions. Sullivan, Ziese and two surprisingly light-on-their-feet choristers bang on banged-up copper pots in time to Sorge’s commands, while heel-clicking like leprechauns. It is brilliant. And this is where we need to give props to Properties Designers Carl & Jane Maryott, whose inventions range from a well-worn deer carcass to an anvil and a butter churner, bringing medieval times to life. Stage & Screen Costumes also dresses everyone to the 13th century nines.

I mentioned the young talent but, of course, it takes a village. Tom Goode shines as an affable, lively and dulcet Friar Tuck. He’s the full package. Mary Mitchell adds seasoned panache as widow Dame Durden, who pursues the sheriff from the fog of her memory.

Audrey Kline as Maid Marian. Photo by Harvey Levine.
Audrey Kline as Maid Marian. Photo by Harvey Levine.

Blair Eig, whose day job is chief medical officer for Holy Cross Health, projects a piercing wit in Will Scarlet (and looks dashing in red and those Gaston boots). And chorus member Laura Hubbard, a spry founding member of VLOC, is a joy to watch while “hobbling on and off with a stick,” as she says in her bio. One can only imagine the inspiration she offers 11-year-old sprite Lillian Hoehl, who infects the ensemble with light and energy.

Victorian Lyric Opera Company (VLOC) tends to recycle many of its offerings, but this is the first time in its 37-year history it has tackled Robin Hood. I overheard audience members saying it was the best they’d seen.

Be sure to put the original men in tights in your sights. This treasure is a labor of love.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, plus a 15-minute intermission.

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Robin Hood plays through March 6, 2016, at The Victorian Lyric Opera Company performing at F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre at The Rockville Civic Center – 603 Edmonston Drive, in Rockville, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 314-8690, purchase them at the box office 2 hours before each performance, or purchase them online.

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