By Lynn Venhaus
In a family of vipers, conniving Regina Hubbard Giddens stands out. She must, for the time is 1900 and women are of no financial consequence in Alabama. To maintain her lavish lifestyle, the ambitious matriarch will do whatever it takes, no matter what the cost.
Mark Blitzstein’s heart-rending 1949 opera “Regina” retains the dramatic heft of its source material, Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” while emphasizing the play’s emotional toll through riveting music.
Rather a hybrid of musical theater and opera, this restored version by the Scottish Opera is quite a showcase for a quartet of strong female voices.
But it’s also a tight ensemble piece, with supporting players contributing to rich Southern gothic tapestry. Director James Robinson pushes all the right buttons, and masterful conductor Stephen Lord amplifies the lush cinematic score, reinforcing the melodrama. Dixieland melodies, ragtime and spirituals add a flavorful component.
In the title role, dynamic Susan Graham not only displays the vocal prowess that made her a world-class mezzo-soprano, but deepens the skullduggery. She must convey a cold heart – after all, she is taking on an iconic role originated by Tallulah Bankhead on stage and Bette Davis on film.
Her two vicious brothers and nephew have concocted a scheme to snatch the family inheritance for their own benefit, a cotton mill on their plantation. Their ruthlessness comes after the Reconstruction, and Hellman tackled issues of class, gender, wealth, power and goodness of a specific period in her groundbreaking 1939 play.
In a world where greed and grace mix in high society, Regina has learned how to manipulate her husband, a weakened Horace Giddens (Kristopher Irmiter). While she reveals her true colors, Graham is mesmerizing as she commands the stage and heightens the drama on a large staircase central to the action.
As good as Graham is, an emotionally fragile Susanna Phillips is deeply affecting as the lonely, alcoholic Birdie. She stands out, especially with a solo in the second act that will rip your heart out. Cruelly used by her contemptuous, abusive husband Oscar Hubbard (Ron Raines), she recounts how he married her for her property — the Lionnet plantation and her family’s cotton fields.
Their weak and worthless son Leo (Michael Day), a pawn in his father and uncle’s schemes, is an uncaring dolt. When a plan for him to marry cousin Alexandra for financial gain is hatched, Birdie and Horace aren’t about to let that happen. Thus, a gripping battle royale that rivals any soap opera in its prime.
We see Monica Dewey, as Alexandra “Zan” Giddens, grow from a carefree teen to a mature woman with gumption, and Melody Wilson is also impressive as devoted housekeeper Addie.
World-class bass-baritone James Morris is a formidable opponent as Regina’s callous brother Ben, whose dirty tricks are relentless. In his OTSL debut, he cements his considerable reputation as a suave, robust underhanded self-preservationist.
Justin Austin as loyal servant Cal and Chaz-men Williams-Ali as song-and-dance man Jazz shine in the spotlight. Sean Curran’s choreography is a dandy addition, particularly the stylish ballroom dance scene, as is the elegant chorus, crisply lead by Cary John Franklin.
While this cast is golden, Allen Moyer’s set design is less so – a questionable manor with drab gray concrete walls, dominated by a gigantic ornate gilded-frame portrait of the grand Lionnet.
A dining table obstructed by the massive staircase is odd, particularly for a dinner scene establishing the reason for setting the takeover plan in motion, as the guest of honor William Marshall is a businessman from Chicago.
James Schuette’s costume designs are a sumptuous array of Southern gentility and aristocracy, with an eye-popping emphasis on red at the dinner party.
Blitzstein’s compelling blend of music styles adds depth and context to this despicable story. This is one of OTSL’s best works to date, and displays not only titans of the art form, but rising stars in a fresh take on a selfish quest for the American Dream.
“Regina” is set for seven performances on May 26, May 31, June 6, 8, 16, 20 and 24 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus, 130 Edgard Road. For tickets or more information, visit www.experienceopera.org.
OTSL Photos by Ken Hamilton.