ON THE RECORD: At Long Last, Regina

By Steven Suskin
09 Aug 2010

Brenda Lewis very much leads things as the searing Regina of the occasion. In the original production, Blitzstein and Crawford were impelled to go with well-known radio singer Jane Pickens (who apparently got through it, but just barely). Ms. Lewis played Birdie in 1949, moving into the title role for the City Opera productions. And a good thing it is, too; hers is a rapacious Regina. Elisabeth Carron is fine as Birdie, although the Carnegie recording of Birdie's Aria ("Lionnet") demonstrates that Lewis was a knockout. Carol Brice makes a superb Addie, while Helen Strine (as Alexandra) and Joshua Hecht (as Horace) are good. (Original cast members Priscilla Gillette and William Wilderman, on the early recordings, might have been stronger.) The surprise of the City Opera recording for me, and probably you, is the sneeringly villainous Ben, Regina's older brother, the vilest of those little foxes. The role is masterfully sung by — who's that? George S. Irving??? That's what it says. He never sang like that when I saw him, anyway. Maybe there was a second George Irving, but this guy was clearly billed complete with that middle "S."

Let it be added that the composer was forced to make certain key cuts from the score during rehearsals in 1949, at the City Opera in 1953, and once again in 1958 (by which time the Dixieland band Blitzstein wrote into the show was deleted, along with the critical song "Chinkypin"). Yes, this stuff is missing from the City Opera recording. No, I don't think it matters. Well, it surely mattered to Blitzstein; but this Regina works perfectly well, thank you very much. Or startlingly well, per me. A considerably full restoration was presented in Glasgow by the Scottish Opera in 1991, but the resulting recording — which is long out-of-print — doesn't begin to compare. It makes Regina sound dull, which Regina certainly is not, and makes a poor case for the restored material. (This Scottish production is also available-on-demand, so be sure you don't demand the wrong Regina.) Elsewhere, there was a production by the Michigan Opera Theatre in 1977 that starred none other than Joan Diener, whom I'm told couldn't quite handle it. I did see a 2005 concert version starring Patti LuPone, which seemed underprepared and underrehearsed and sure wasn't worth the trip to Washington.

Brief liner notes have been prepared for this release, consisting mainly of reproduced appreciations by Bernstein (obviously) and Loesser (perhaps surprisingly). Bernstein, in a frequently quoted pre-opening piece for the Times, points out that his mentor Blitzstein's method has been to give the deadly leading character music that is not harsh but purposely extra sweet ("the music reeks with magnolia, Southern gentility, splendiferous hospitality, honeyed drawls"). Lenny points out that Regina extorts from brother Oscar "in a heavenly Brahmsian phrase"; she blackmails Ben and Oscar "in a noble Handelian recitative"; and cites "Things" as "a charming dolce waltz that conceals some of the most venomous lyrics known to man."

Loesser's piece succinctly points out that this is no mere musicalization: "beyond delivering neat musical capsules that conveniently paraphrase steps in the narrative, Blitzstein gives a special magic illumination to the whole thing, making the already enormous emotion of the story even more wonderfully memorable than before." Listen to Frank, he knows whereof he writes: "Blitzstein has made a sort of giant song of the entire piece — consciously and deftly. Yet along with his astounding craftsmanship, he has poured in all his sense of the emotional, his instinct for finding and coloring those exclamation points in human drama (tragic or comic) at which the speaking voice can no longer contain itself and emerges as music."

I had intended here to go into a careful description of the two-dozen or so songs/scenes that I especially like, but I suppose I've made my affection for Regina clear. So I'll just refer you to Birdie's heart-breaking "Lionnet," as effective a character study/breakdown as we've heard on Broadway. And Regina's rapacious "Best Thing of All" and her dangerous waltz, "Things." And Addie's late night "Blues," and the beauteous "Rain Quartet," and Zan's "What Will It Be?" (a direct forerunner, it seems to me, of Loesser's "Somebody, Somewhere"). And Ben's "Greedy Girl," the artful "Bonds" sequence, and the spiritual ("Certainly, Lord") which galvanizes the final scene, and — oh, hell. Marc Blitzstein's Regina. On CD, finally.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)


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