The intense singing of a co-worker (Renee Fleming) ruins the retirement party of a Kinko's manager (Patrick Stewart) in a sketch from "The Second City Guide to the Opera." | Todd Rosenberg Photography
Updated: February 8, 2013 6:21AM
Did you hear the one about the international grand opera company that woke up one day to realize that the world’s greatest improvisational comedy troupe has been located just up the street for 53 years?
Sometimes it takes outsiders or newcomers to tell locals the obvious. But when diva soprano Renée Fleming and her husband paid their first visit to the Second City in fall 2011, the lightbulb went off quickly. Proving again her value not only as a performer but as creative consultant and a board vice president at Lyric Opera of Chicago, La Fleming immediately called Anthony Freud, the Brit who literally had just started as Lyric’s first non-Chicagoan general director.
“We have to do something with them,” the singer/impresaria said. “We can tap a new audience for opera and, if all goes well, we can laugh our heads off!” Freud agreed and found he wasn’t the only one wondering why this collaboration had never happened before. A call went to Kelly Leonard, longtime head of many of the comedy hub’s Chicago operations, and the project began.
And after more than a year of planning, writing, improvising and stagework between the two companies, “The Second City Guide to the Opera” played Saturday night at the Civic Opera House to a highly mirthful sold-out crowd of 3,700-plus. It was a great night for Lyric and its Freud-launched Lyric Unlimited audience and civic development project. And for Second City, too, with a reminder of just how funny the group can be when it’s not afraid to go back to its roots in brainy, cultural parody as well as its current embrace of wiseacre straphanger and scatological humor.
Six Second Citizens, none from the mainstage but all excellent (and one doubling as a writer), two bright-voiced singers from Lyric’s Ryan Center training program, a Second City resident director, its e.t.c. stage musical director, five additional musicians and a writer from the company’s corporate comedy division were joined by Fleming herself as co-host with her pal “Star Trek: The Next Generation” star and stage vet Patrick Stewart.
Two hourlong sets of ten sketches surrounded an intermission, with each section of the evening getting its own explanatory song, “It’s Called the Overture,” “Intermission” and “Finale,” which took on both the concept of opera organization (“If this is Verdi, we all die/If this is Wagner, we all die but you don’t care”) and audience logistics (“It’s intermission? I thought it was over!” and planning an interval trip to one of the house’s limited number of washrooms).
There were no sacred cows, especially not Lyric’s upper-end and front-rows-occupying financial supporters. An impish, black-tied Stewart explained that opera is “where beauty is created for old people to sleep through.” And an improvised Shakespeare skit in the second half apparently inadvertently took the names and occupations of local head of PNC Bank Joseph Gregoire, his wife Claire and seat-companion socialite and philanthropist Renee Crown as meat and title for a wicked sendup of the indifference of bankers to today’s realities.
Fleming skewered herself in a routine about everybody’s least favorite Kinko’s “co-worker” sabotaging a retirement party for the store manager (Stewart) with her insistence on singing “all operalike” and in another over-the-top scene of a master class conducted by the fearless Beth Melewski, who also later stripped, back to camera, for a befuddled backstage Stewart unaware that opera performers have quite healthy physical appetites.
Director Billy Bungeroth and actor-writer Timothy Sniffen, writer Kate James and composer-arranger Jesse Case worked strong changes variations on Second City standbys such as the job interview sketch, here with an underemployed six-member Lyric chorus applying in unison to work for the price of one clerk. Or an OkCupid blind date unfurling to expose two opera fanatics who really probably are made for each other and for watching all 16 hours of the Ring Cycle in one performance.
Marvelously off-kilter Ross Bryant delivered 12-tone composition revolutionary Arnold Schoenberg as an in-your-face 1930s refugee stand-up comedian in a routine that would have had the late Severn Darden smiling. The deceptively named Joey Bland, in addition to rattling off the improvised Shakespeare as if the Avon flowed through his veins, paired with Ryan Center mezzo J’nai Bridges for a musical encounter between a staunchly monolingual American backpacker and an Italian aria-spinning, and costumed, maiden. Carisa Barreca was a ditzy blonde soprano whose ill-chosen snatches from a Russian opera nearly send a Russian man stricken on the street to his grave. (“But how do these help him?” “Oh, it’s a Russian opera: Help never comes.”)
On-target contributions came as well from Second City’s Tawny Newsome, game Ryan Center tenor Bernard Holcomb, Lyric music director Andrew Davis (on audiotape with some pre-performance announcement zingers), and on video, two relationship therapist sessions with bohemians Mimi and Rodolfo and gingerbread-shunning Hansel and Gretel.
Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7)