Marc Blitzstein’s Regina is a hard show to characterize. Some call it an opera; others might call it a musical. After a paltry 56-show run on Broadway in 1949, the show finally succeeded in a 1953 production by the New York City Opera. Under the direction of Nick Olcott, the Maryland Opera Studio gave a dynamic performance of this flashy, genre-bending critique of capitalism.
Based on Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play The Little Foxes, Regina tells of a power-hungry family living in a sleepy Alabama town at the turn of the century. Regina Giddens (Nicole Levesque) and her two brothers Ben Hubbard (Mark Wanich) and Oscar Hubbard (Anthony Eversole) are looking for any opportunity to get rich quick. They scheme to partner with Chicago businessman William Marshall (Alec Feiss) to bring textile manufacturing to Alabama, but the two brothers cannot finance the scheme without support from Regina’s ailing husband Horace (Daren Jackson), a banker who is staying at Johns Hopkins Hospital with heart trouble. Regina agrees to invest her husband’s money as long as she can receive extra profits, and Oscar settles under one condition – that Regina’s daughter Alexandra (“Zan”), played by Chelsea Davidson, marry his pompous son Leo (Matthew Hill).
Blitzstein found it challenging to set The Little Foxes’ pithy dialogue to music, resorting to a blend of sung text, spoken words over music and plain speech. This setting worked with the often-interjectory dialogue, but too often, the performers’ voices were drowned out by the lush orchestral score, especially when musicians joined the actors on stage.
As the title character, Nicole Levesque demonstrated great vocal prowess and a remarkable range, shining in “The Best Thing of All.” Her wickedness was palpable, and by the final scene the audience feels genuine hatred toward her character. Chelsea Davidson shone in her portrayal of Zan, growing from a fun-loving girl in the opera’s prologue into an empowered woman in the final scene. Her voice is warm, agile and full, especially in her aria “What Will it Be for Me?” Daren Jackson’s bass voice is mature, rich, and powerful, and he makes a sympathetic Horace.
While Regina addresses race less explicitly than The Little Foxes, its juxtaposition of blues music with music in the European tradition suggests a deeper racial divide between the Hubbards and Giddens and their black servants. This divide is blurred by Olcott’s non-traditional casting decisions to cast a black man as Horace Giddens and a white woman as the family’s maid, Addie, a decision Olcott discussed with a panel of University of Maryland professors prior to the performance. While some believe that “colorblind” casting is problematic or cultural appropriation, others see it as just another way one might suspend belief while watching an opera, just as one might approach a woman singing a pants role.
Not quite an opera, not quite a musical, Regina is a telling snapshot of American culture featuring a decadent anti-heroine. At three hours, it is long, but the redemptive final scene, lit perfectly by Max Doolittle, makes it all worth it.
Running Time: Three hours, with two 15-minute intermissions.
Regina plays through April 16, 2016 at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Kay Theatre at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard), in College Park, MD. For tickets, call (301) 405-2787, or purchase them online.