Jerome Kern’s “Have A Heart” From The Ohio Light Opera

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
22 July, 2017

If we go back in time 100 years and look at Broadway, we witness a change: the US entertainment market had been, mostly, dominated by European operettas à la The Merry Widow till then, but by the end of the 1910s, and World War I, a wave of new American shows came along and created contemporary home-made competition to the Viennese and Hungarian imports which were, more and more, seen as old-world affairs with sentimental music, ball gowns and escapist plots set in the past, with princes and princesses, kings and queens, and many arch dukes with show girls they cannot marry. It’s a view of operetta that became popular in its own right, most noticeably in Romberg’s big nostalgic masterpiece The Student Prince (1924), and it’s a view of the genre that dominates the USA until today. For better and for worse. (Read Richard Traubner’s Operetta: A Theatrical History and you know what I mean.) But what did the ‘new’ shows look and sound like that presented an alternative to the fluffy ¾ time old world stuff? The Ohio Light Opera presented one famous example, the Jerome Kern/Guy Bolton/P. G. Wodehouse “musical comedy” Have A Heart, in 2016. It opened, originally, at the Liberty Theatre in New York in January 1917. Now, this modern-day performance from Wooster is available on DVD, and it doesn’t just present the full original score with full orchestra – it actually presents all songs cut prior to the Broadway opening, thanks to the assistance of Mark Horowitz at the Library of Congress and a team of devoted OLO researchers. The DVD is produced and distributed by the Operetta Foundation.

Ladie's underwear ad from 1917.

Ladie’s underwear ad from 1917.

The action of Have a Heart is set – are you ready for it? – in the lingerie room of Schoonmaker’s Department Store in Blueport, Rhode Island. There, we see up-to-date Americans from all layers of society discuss everyday problems such as money, divorce, clothes, the working woman, elevators and “going up,” in business and life in general. The costumes by Hali Hutchison and sets by Daniel Hobbs capture the 1917 “feel” very well.

Scene from "Have a Heart" at Ohio, with a dazzling Stephen Faulk. (Photo: Matt Dilyard)

Scene from “Have a Heart” at Ohio, with dashing Stephen Faulk as Ted Sheldon and Emily Hagens as Lizzie O’Brian. (Photo: Matt Dilyard)

But stage director Steven A. Daigle is not noticeably interested in proving to us, today, what might have been considered ‘modern’ and ‘revolutionary’ a hundred years ago. His lingerie room and the goings on there are presented as if this were pure operetta nostalgia – i.e. the opposite of what Kern, Bolton and Wodehouse originally intended. The slapstick comedy and dead pan humor that elevator boy Henry (Kyle Yamiro) has to deliver in act 1 falls mostly flat, even though Yamiro posses an excellent voice and tries very hard to be funny in a Nathan Lane kind of way.

Jerome Kern's "Have a Heart" at the Ohio Light Opera. (Photo: Matt Dilyard)

Kyle Yampiro in Jerome Kern’s “Have a Heart” at the Ohio Light Opera. (Photo: Matt Dilyard)

The rather adventurous “socialist” ideas shop owner Mr. Schoonmaker has regarding his female staff equally fall flat, because Daigle never allows for any sizzle or naughtiness. Which makes large chunks of the dialogue tedious, even though Nathan Brian is an impressive Rutherford Schoonmaker with good comic timing. (Schoonmaker wants to “protect” the working girls in his employment by giving them martinis, to start the working day with the proper positive attitude. He has many such “protective” schemes.)

At Brian’s side, Sarah Best sings Schoonmaker’s ex-wife Peggy with glowing operatic soprano tones, but with little tonal flexibility.

The nostalgic and non-risqué approach becomes even more tiresome in act 2, set in a luxirous night club where all couples bump into one another, until they eventually find their happy endings. The highly attractive and towering Isaac Assor as the entertainer Yossuf, “The Turk,” should be a perfect ball room crooner when he tells the guests at the Ocean View Hotel the exotic tale of love in far-away Samarkand. Here, he presents this oriental number with a rather stiff opera voice and giant fake mustache, while conductor J. Lynn Thompson doesn’t know what to do with the musical wonders either.

If you’ve seen other OLO productions you’ll be aware that this is a general problem there: the young and energetic singers are kind of drowned out by the banality of the supposedly “traditional” staging which wants to look historic, but isn’t. (Or rather, it’s historic like a 1970s college production might be, but not true Broadway 1917.)

Some of the singers break away from this “don’t be too wild and disturb the patrons” concept: Tanya Roberts as the film diva Dolly Brabazon is hillarious, even if on the shrill side of things. But at least she is on a side and not neutral middle-ground! And then there is Stephen Faulk as the juvenile lead Ted Sheldon, dancing and singing his way through the lingerie department and the Kern score. I’m sure that he and some others in the cast would be capable of a more edgy interpretation of the piece.

Sheet music cover for "Have a Heart," 1917.

Sheet music cover for “Have a Heart,” 1917.

What you do get, of course, is a change to see the entire show with full dialogue and all the music. And for the most part, the sets look attractive in their old fashioned way. And there is an orchestra, even if conductor Thompson isn’t one to make the Kern syncopations and jazz waltzes take off. You have to guess what the novelty effect of this music once was, and also why it pushed aside European operetta. Here, early musical comedy sounds pretty much the same as Viennese operetta (without making it clear why operetta was so popular either). A paradox, as Gilbert & Sullivan would say.

Scene from Jerome Kern's "Have a Heart" at the Ohio Light Opera. (Photo: Matt Dilyard)

Sarah Best as Mrs. Schoonmaker and Nathan Brian as her ex-husband in Jerome Kern’s “Have a Heart” at the Ohio Light Opera. (Photo: Matt Dilyard)

If this sounds very negative, I apologize. The film editing is attractive, the (un-miked) voices are strong, the costumes great. If you want to get to know this Kern show – one of his so called “Princess musicals,” even though it didn’t premiere at the Princess Theatre – then here’s your chance. It’s an alternative to the 2005 live recording (on disc only) by the Comic Opera Guild, from their Jerome Kern Festival. That version, however, only has double piano accompaniment!

Have a Heart only lasted for 76 performances on Broadway, which isn’t much. But in the two following years there was an A and a B Company touring simultaneously, playing in no fewer than 36 states and five Canadian provinces. To call it a “flop” would be slightly missing the point. Just like Daigle and Thompson slightly miss it. But the cast has enough vigor to make the DVD worth watching. And the dialogue by Bolton/Wodehouse is great: witty and politically blazingly incorrect. Plus: there’s a never ending string of Kern songs, though no stand-out (or stand-alone) “all time favorites,” unless you count “And I Am All Alone”, “You Said Something,” and the waltz “Lizzie, Lizzie, I’m So Busy” which is refreshing in every way. You might recognize it from the John McGlinn overture album.

To order the DVD, send a message to Michael Miller at the Operetta Foundation. The new release is not yet uploaded to their web shop.

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