Ohio Light Opera / Steven Byess

Rudolf Friml: The Vagabond King

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Rudolf Friml's The Vagabond King is an enormously important work in the realm of American musical theater, with its luscious tunes, highbrow atmosphere, and uncharacteristically serious, tragic story. Although it is an operetta in the European mold, The Vagabond King debuted in the heady Broadway season of 1925, the year Broadway itself became of age artistically and financially, and actually outlasted the now much better-known No! No! Nanette by nearly 200 performances. Nonetheless, The Vagabond King has waited a tremendously long time to find a complete performance on recording. Sizeable excerpts were served up by the Victor Light Opera Company in 1926, singers Alfred Drake in 1951, Mario Lanza in 1959, and Gordon MacRae sometime, also, in the '50s. Anyone wanting to hear more of the work routinely identified as Rudolf Friml's finest would have had either to resort to the two filmed versions of the show or to take in a revival, of which there were at least three on Broadway by the time of the second movie version (1956).

Ohio Light Opera of the College at Wooster has stepped in to fill up the gap with its Albany release Rudolf Friml: The Vagabond King, as it has with nearly 30 other similarly neglected musical theater works since its founding in 1979. The Ohio Light Opera offerings have been a mixed bag, sometimes marred by bad or indifferent sound or through the involvement of less than top-drawer players. The Vagabond King, recorded during its second, 2004 revival of this work, is one of the better entries in the catalog. Principals Ted Christopher as François Villon and Sandra Ross, who is pictured on the front cover, as Villon's ill-fated paramour Huguette, do a credible job of singing and playing these parts, and the Ohio Light Opera Orchestra under Steven Byess sounds just like a theater orchestra should. The recording does not have a great deal of atmosphere and sometimes the stage locations of actors prevent them from being heard clearly. One must be prepared to be told the story of The Vagabond King in addition to experiencing it as a musical work, as there is a tremendous amount of dialogue in this musical -- the play, rather than the music, really is the "thing" here. However, for long drives in which one wants to keep the radio off, this is a pleasant diversion, and musical theater fans curious about The Vagabond King now have a viable option through which to access it.

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