The Student Prince

Book and Lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly
Book Adaptation by Hugh Wheeler
Music by Sigmund Romberg

Director and Choreographer, Rudy Hogenmiller
Conductor, Roger L. Bingaman

Produced by Light Opera Works
at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston, Illinois

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on Aug. 20, 2011

As I sat enjoying Light Opera Works' production of this delightful operetta, the longest-running Broadway show of the Roaring Twenties, it came to me how its lilting music, gentle humor, and touching story go well beyond mere entertainment. Because the two young lovers are themselves adolescents or vicenarians, and because more than half the other characters are also young, an opportunity opens up. If one persuades a teenage boy or girl to sit through a good performance of The Student Prince -- with his or her electronic tethers cut for the duration -- then a teaching moment blooms. What, one might ask the teenager, would he or she give up for love? Is love "true" only when the other person's happiness is essential to one's own? Is it wise to have the attitude in the lyrics of "Serenade": "love me or I die"? When does duty supersede self-interest?

This musical play is a love story without a happy ending. Prince Karl Franz of Karlsberg must marry Princess Margaret of Saxony for the sake of a political alliance, despite being deeply in love with Kathie, the niece of an innkeeper. Eventually, Karl must choose between love and duty, regretfully turning his back on Kathie, who accepts with sadness the reality of his responsibilities and the finality of their parting.

Thus, the heaviest question in this story to put to our hypothetical teenager is one that many young people in 2011 need to face. It's about an emotional force that drives some to overreact to real or imagined wrongs. Sometimes that overreaction becomes sociopathic and leads to retribution that proves to be grossly, even shockingly, disproportionate to the original affront. How, we might ask our teenage friend, do you handle disappointment? How have you handled, or how might you handle, personal setbacks as deep as the one in this story of Kathie and her prince, setbacks such as unrequited love, frustrated longing, rejection by peers, embarrassment, or happenstance that disfavors your wants or needs? How likely, or how reasonable, are the grace and dignity with which both Karl Franz and Kathie handle their disappointment?

Student Prince is largely about being young: experiencing life, having a good time, and learning lessons. The quick of this sensibility comes out in the medieval student song "Gaudeamus igitur":

Gaudeamus igitur
Iuvenes dum sumus.
Post iucundam iuventutem,
Post molestam senectutem,
Nos habebit humus.

So then, let us rejoice
While we're young.
After delightful youth,
After annoying old age,
The ground will have us.

And growing out of this attitude is the song "Drink, Drink, Drink":

Drink! Drink! Drink!
To eyes that are bright as stars when they're shining on me!
Drink! Drink! Drink!
To lips that are red and sweet as the fruit on the tree!

Here's a hope that those bright eyes will shine
Lovingly, longingly soon into mine!
May those lips that are red and sweet,
Tonight with joy my own lips meet!

All I ask is a right to see those smiling eyes beguiling me
Drink! Drink!
Let the toast start!
May young hearts never part!
Drink! Drink! Drink!
Let every true lover salute his sweetheart!
Let's drink!

No matter how one might feel about the folly of youth (who, after all, doesn't enjoy crying that “youth is wasted on the young”?), the success of this play depends on the exuberance, excitement, and exaggeration of its young cast. They must fill the air with the energy of delight, thrill, and emotionality. And if they succeed, then we have conflict -- intergenerational conflict, in this case. Their elders are trying to strike that ever-elusive compromise between perpetuating tradition and bowing to change, however reluctantly. But even more meaningfully, we then watch the transformation of Karl Franz as he comes to accept the hard fact that life imposes demands as well as offering joys. And this transformation runs in parallel with Kathie’s gradual acceptance that she can’t have the love of her life. Both lovers discover the injustice that life sometimes thrusts upon romance.

Simple but profound as this lesson is, it’s on this very point that the production failed. In the first two acts of this performance, youthful gaiety abounded. The singing was zestful, the beer-guzzling was enthusiastic, and the falling-in-love was sweet. In fact, the atmosphere was almost too charged, the presentation too forceful, as though the director didn't trust the music or the story to do its work. Be that as it may, however, the voices were strong. Playing the prince, William Bennett showed off his bright and nimble tenor pipes, especially on those ringing high notes, even though once or twice he did crack slightly. Though believable as the jejune young prince in the first two acts, in the third Bennett didn't meet the demand for more dramatic weight as the maturing royal whose heart was breaking under the pressure of his new duties as King.

Likewise, soprano Danielle M. Knox gave us vocal aplomb in the role of Kathie, with singing that was powerful and rich. But in her portrayal there was too much maturity. Knox's Kathie was indeed sorry that her romance with the prince had to end, but instead of the anguish that lay ready to pour forth in the final scene, her emotional reaction was barely a valley at all. In fact, she seemed somewhat insouciant. The sad result was that Knox's marginal indifference and Bennett's one-dimensional lightness synergistically robbed the third act -- and the story as a whole -- of its emotional wallop. Absent was the sense of loss.

The most colorful characterization in the production was that of Dale Benson, who capitalized on his natural tremulation, crisp elocution, and restrained flamboyance to sculpt a deliciously haughty but thoroughly likeable Lutz, the prince's valet. With due respect to his professional individuality, I have to say that Benson reminded me, in both gesture and voice, of the great Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans. Yes, one could use the word "overblown" to describe Benson's acting, but I myself refuse. He was very entertaining.

Bill Stone was suitably amiable as the prince's tutor, Dr. Engel. But despite singing usually with authority, he struggled for stability on the high notes. Jon Landvick, as the prolix leader of the Saxon Corps, Detlef, sang the drinking song with gusto and energy. In fact, with all the cheerfulness and optimism one expects of youth, he set the tone in that scene. Conductor Roger L. Bingaman generally had his orchestra turning out good playing, but several times the violins were uncomfortably out of tune.

Student Prince is enjoyable even when a given production, like this one, doesn't tap all the show's potential. And perhaps analysis can go so far that it destroys the fun. But when the potential is as great as in this operetta, ignoring it is wasteful. I'd like to ask our hypothetical teenager whether he or she is tired of looking for substance in fluff, though, admittedly, the premise underlying that question may be laughable.