‘Brides and Mothers’ and ‘Cox and Box’ at The Forgotten Opera Company: Two dazzling flashes of operetta

A double feature, running just two performances at The Forgotten Opera Company, a subset of The Victorian Lyric Opera Company in Rockville? Sure, why not?

Soprano Rhiannon Vaughn in the world premiere of ‘Brides and Mothers.’ Photo credit: Maria Wilson.

The world debut of Brides and Mothers, Music by Sean Pflueger, Lyrics by Laura Wehrmeyer-Fuentes paired with a production of Cox and Box, Arthur Sullivan’s work, before he became half of Gilbert and Sullivan? Of course, thanks!

Cox and Box is an operetta with lyrics by F.C. Burnand, which seem to me as clever as those of William Gilbert, who saw a public performance of the show and deemed the music superior to the ridiculous premise which it accompanied.  

This is fair criticism. The plot of Cox and Box would make a good six-panel comic. The fault lay not with the future Sir Arthur Sullivan, nor with lyricist Burnand, but with John Maddison Morton, who wrote Box And Cox, A Romance Of Real Life In One Act, a farcical play popular at the time. It was set to music for the entertainment of a private gathering, then produced in public some weeks later. 

The piece endures for three quarters of an hour largely because the characters are amusing, the songs delightful (a lullaby to bacon, if you please!) and the performers’ vocal acrobatics impressive and occasionally astounding. 

A suggestive single set made of just a few pieces is made lively by the deliberately active – but not frenetic – frolics of the cast, much of it semi-bewildered marching. Playing our initially named character Cox, Justin Dayhoff is an endearing bundle of persnickety ways, and a very smooth comic performer. Though he is occasionally working the outside edges of his vocal range, he is undistressed and charmingly poised.

Justin Dayhoff as J.J. Cox (left), Emily Gouillart as Sgt. Bouncer (center), and Bob Gudauskas as J.J. Box (right) find common ground in ‘Cox and Box.’ Photo credit: Maria Wilson.

As Cox’s landlady Bouncer, (originally Mrs. Bouncer; for the operetta redesignated as Sergeant Bouncer), Emily Gouillart carries herself with military rigidity most of the time, then with melodramatic “sneaky miscreant” movements. She adopts the classic mannerisms of a “villain” character, with little villany, only self-interest. Her voice is strong and her face expressive, so even beneath a slightly disappointing wig, she’s fascinatingly watchable.

Our final character, Box, is played by Bob Gudauskas, whose wonderful mellow voice is by turns strong, stentorious and soothing. His physicality blends stuffy restraint with weariness, creating an inner tension that hints of explosiveness. 

The characters individually reveal themselves, which structurally removes the element of surprise. Our amusement manifests in our anticipation of the inevitable intersections and resultant hijinks. One such is Sergeant Bouncer’s habit of deflecting uncomfortable questioning with sudden outbursts about the glories of wartime action. So hypnotic and immersive is Bouncer’s call of “Rattaplan! Rattaplan!” that Cox (and eventually Box) join with enthusiasm and an uncertain degree of befuddlement.

It’s a lovely little piece, and the live five-piece orchestra tucked in a corner of the staging area is an auditory treat. Quite a shame it was scheduled for only two performances.

Carla Rountree, soprano (left), and Chris Herman, mezzo (right), in the world premiere of ‘Brides and Mothers.’ Photo credit: Maria Wilson.

Act Two of the performance is Brides and Mothers, Music by Sean Pflueger, Lyrics by Laura Wehrmeyer-Fuentes, a brand-new piece debuting here in Maryland. 

As Act I celebrates Victorian tropes, Act II is decidedly contemporary, its auditory aesthetic suggestive of Sondheim. I like Sondheim’s music, though his stories often drip with fatalism. Brides and Mothers, however, begins with a premise that is theoretically hopeful. A background in bridalwear affords me particular appreciation for drama inherent between brides and mothers. The setting, the interior of a bridal gown salon,  though unspecific to the point of minimalism, effectively captures the ambiance. Something about the set strikes me: it lacks mirrors. Since the entire piece, however, is about reflection, an onstage looking glass risks redundancy. The conflicts are legitimate, the character archetypes dead on, and the resolution satisfying if not necessarily realistic. 

Laura Wehrmeyer-Fuentes crafts lyrics that are familiar, universal, inevitable, yet not hackneyed or trite. They have a natural conversational quality completely lacking in Gilbert and Sullivan- or, for that matter, Sondheim. It’s refreshing to hear an operetta that broadcasts its accessibility from its very title. 

Sean Pflueger’s music as performed by the onstage musicians (now tucked behind the set) is fresh, evocative, sentimental, sweet and sometimes sad, beautifully encapsulating a mother’s journey. In the setting of a bridal shop, mothers and daughters are faced with the necessity of change, and Pflueger’s score mated with Wehrmeyer-Fuentes’ lyrics captures that better than the well-known “Sunrise, Sunset.”

The two brides are lovely, and have wonderful voices. I have met the archetype embodied by Rhiannon Vaughn as Bride 1 many times over. Her wedding day is THE big moment. Playing Mother 1, Chris Herman is softly understated and a bit bewildered by the hoopla. Bride 2, Carla Rountree, embodies such sweetness that I want to hug her. Mother 2, in an astounding transformation of Emily Goulliart from Act I, dominates familiarly as she piggybacks personal baggage on her daughter’s special day.

This piece will resonate with anyone who’s had a mother or a daughter, or been a daughter, bride, mother, or mother of a bride. Despite being under an hour of one specific moment microscopically examined, it captures the essence of myriad mother/daughter dynamics that accompany both their whole lives. 

Debbie Grossman, director of both pieces, balances Act I’s broad comedy against the delicate subtlety of mixed emotions in Act II. Her hand with humanity is steady and sure. Music director Francine Krasowska blends voices and instruments in two distinctive styles that nonetheless work together nicely like tapas plates. The team effort of performers and creative producers associated with Brides and Mothers delivers a nuanced window into perhaps the most important of feminine relationships. I look forward to revisiting it in a future iteration. 

Running Time: One hour and thirty minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Brides & Mothers and Cox And Box by The Forgotten Opera Company / Victorian Lyric Opera Company played on Saturday, November 9, 2019 at 8 pm, and Sunday, November 10, 2019 at 2 pm at Montgomery County Cultural Arts Center, 7995 Georgia Ave, Silver Spring, MD. For more information about The Forgotten Opera Company / Victorian Lyric Opera Company, go online.


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