Texas Ballet Theater’s new production is like a glass of fizzing champagne that overflows and spills just a bit down your arm: a festive feeling, a couple of giggles, no harm done.
It’s the North Texas premiere of The Merry Widow, a dance version of an operetta composed by Franz Lehar in 1905. The ballet was created in 1975 by British choreographer Ronald Hynd, who was in attendance at Bass Hall on Friday night.
It’s a pleasure to see TBT, which regularly gives us such expertly polished productions of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, throw itself into a less-familiar story ballet. Merry Widow is worlds apart from those in weight and tone. A charming, thoroughly lighthearted comedy — based on an operetta, please note, not grand opera — it is nevertheless engaging throughout.
The lengthy printed synopsis made my eyes cross, but the gist is this: Hanna (Carrie Judson on Friday and Saturday nights, Betsy McBride in the two matinees), a rich widow from the nation of Pontevedro, is partying with her country’s diplomats in Paris and is looking for a new husband. If she chooses a foreigner, she’ll lose her fortune, and somehow also plunge her whole country into poverty.
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There’s some comedy when she appears to choose unwisely and some light dramatic tension when the best candidate turns out to be an old flame, Danilo, whom she has complicated feelings about. There’s also a subplot about the Pontevedrian ambassador’s wife, Valencienne, having an affair with a Frenchman, Camille. That’s about it.
Pontevedro appears to be a supremely silly, unimportant country, whose ministers are therefore well-dressed and well-mustachioed — and well-soused much of the time. The comedy surrounding all this is nicely done. Tim O’Keefe as the aging ambassador and Li Anlin as his aide, both former Houston Ballet superstars turned character dancers, are delightful.
But everyone is called upon to act. There’s a lot of pantomime, and if the details are not always clear, it really doesn’t matter. The story is easy to follow, and the sets and costumes are vibrant and slightly mad — even the statues and candelabra in the background look a bit tipsy.
The score, performed live by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michael Moricz, in their second appearance with the company this season, is tuneful and stuffed with waltzes, adding to the fizzy-champagne effect. Whoever was playing the cymbals should have had his or her own bows.
Merry Widow is not a notable showcase for pyrotechnics from the dancers — they toss off more champagne glasses (literally) than fouettes. It’s 1905, so skirts are long and ladies all have precarious-looking Gibson-girl updos, and much of the choreography seems muted. But there are rousing national dances from the Pontevedrians, the men especially (Simon Wexler wowed as the soloist Friday), and a sparkling cancan number in a wonderfully imagined Paris cafe.
And both couples have lovely, romantic pas de deux. I thought the best one was for Camille (Jiyan Dai) and Valencienne (Leticia Oliveira, who created the most vivid character with her dancing Friday night), until the final affecting duet between Hanna and Danilo (Carl Coomer, also delicious in his drunk scene in Act 1) that seals their love and her countrymen’s continuing good fortunes.
Fittingly, everyone exits drinking.