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‘La Traviata,’ ‘Elegies’ prove show can go on despite virus

Area arts organizations continue to make some tasty lemonade from these COVID-19 lemons.

Both Opera Western Reserve and Youngstown State University Theatre premiered alternatives to their normal programming on Friday.

Now a man needs to know his limitations, and I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of opera is limited. Don’t expect an assessment of the vocal prowess of Mackenzie Whitney and Karen Barraza, the real-life husband and wife duo that stars in the tragic love story “La Traviata” by Giuseppe Verdi, or the local talent that joined them — Brian Keith Johnson, Sierra McCorvey and Jason Budd.

But new OWR Production Director Scott Skiba created a unique viewing experience that should help satisfy those who attend the company’s annual production and provides an entry point for newcomers to sample a performance.

Skiba’s use of Stambaugh Auditorium as a set is magnificent. The gardens, the marble staircase, the dark wood of the walls for the room transformed into Violetta’s bedroom give the production a grandeur that would be impossible for an opera company the size of OWR to create on a stage.

Skiba described himself as a film buff in an interview last week, and some of the camera work effectively accentuates the dramatic moments of the story. Credit equally belongs to director of photography / camera operator / editor Courtney Greene.

OWR scaled back the size of the orchestra that normally accompanies its performances to make it easier to comply with COVID-19 protocols, but the quintet (Amram Joseph Kromholz, violin; Caitlin Hedge, viola; Kellen Degnan, cello; Jeffrey W. Bremer, bass; and Benjamin Malkevitch, piano) led by guest conductor Dean Buck is one of the strengths of the production.

The vocals were recorded before the visuals, and there definitely are some lip syncing issues throughout the production. And at least on my speakers, some of the vocals seemed to be recorded too loudly, which distorted some of the high notes, no matter how much I adjusted the volume.

But there’s enough in this “Taste of La Traviata” to make audiences hunger for more. Tickets for online access are $19.99 and can be purchased online at www.operawesternreserve.org.

“Elegies” is the second YSU Theatre production to go online due to the coronavirus.

The song cycle by William Finn (“Falsettos,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) replaced the musical “Godspell” on the originally planned 2020-21 theater season, but this is no static Zoom musical.

Most of the action unfolds on the Ford Theater stage, and Todd Dicken’s set design has some surprises, such as when a spiral staircase starts spinning to simulate a gondola on “Venice.” And for a show that lends itself to a concert-like staging, director Maria Fenty Denison and choreographer Amy A. Wright have added a major dance component to the production with several of the songs accompanied by a solo dancer or a small ensemble.

Denison and Music Director Amanda Beagle bring in a couple of ringers — local theater vet James McClellan strikes just the right wistful, melancholy tone for “Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving” and Easy Street Productions co-founder Maureen Collins perfectly inhabits the role of a demanding teacher realizing all she has sacrificed in “Only One.”

But the cast of YSU students who surround them are more than up to the task.

Lexi Denney delivers what would have been a show-stopping performance in front of an audience with a rollicking, energetic “Passover,” and Lacey Farina captures the simple beauty of “Anytime.”

“My Dogs” (sung by Kamryn Deja, Morgan LaCamera, Savannah Bell and Machiah Davis) gets Act II off to a strong start, and the Adam Dominick-led “Goodbye / Boom-Boom” is one of the most powerful numbers.

Instead of providing a stream that can be watched at any time, YSU Theatre sells tickets that provide access to a specific viewing time. Remaining show times are 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $10 for a single viewer and $25 for group viewing and are available at www.showtix4u.com/events/YoungstownState University.

Andy Gray is the entertainment editor of Ticket. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com.

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