A ‘Night’ (and ‘Day’) at the opera

The Skylight's shows range from traditional operas, like September's "The Barber of Seville" (pictured), to musicals and modern rock operas, like its season-ending production of "Rent," opening in May.

Does your mental image of opera consist exclusively of fat ladies singing German in Viking helmets — or worse, Bugs Bunny?

If so, it may be difficult for you to believe that a night at the opera could be worthwhile. But take it from me: with companies like the Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee, “opera” doesn’t have to be a dirty five-letter word anymore.

Last week, I decided to risk my evening with a trip to the Skylight, located at 158 N. Broadway St. in the Third Ward, to see a performance of “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.” It’s safe to say I wasn’t disappointed.

If you’re looking to see any show at the Skylight, one of the first things you should know is that there are actually two different theaters to choose from, both of which are housed in the Broadway Theatre Center. There’s the Cabot Theatre, a stunning tribute to the traditional 18th-century opera house, and the Studio Theatre, a simple yet versatile black box theater that can easily be reorganized for each individual show.

In order to get into either, of course, you need tickets, and here’s where the Skylight may have its best draw for students. While the ticket price of most seats for a weekday show at the Skylight is $59, patrons under 40 can purchase weekday tickets for no more than $20, and you might even be able to get away with $12 tickets if you’re lucky.

The reason: the Skylight is offering a substantial discount to the under-40 crowd to draw some young blood into the theater. The discount drops the price of almost every seat down to only $20 for every performance except Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday matinees. Even for those, however, students can get $10 off, dropping prices down to $35 for back row seats.

However, if you feel like gambling, you can “rush” the box office starting half an hour before the performance and buy tickets for the remaining seats at half-price, giving you a chance to pay as little as $12 for tickets.

Those tickets will buy you a seat for everything from traditional opera — although the Skylight makes a point to offer only English translations of classic works, for the everyday viewer — to regular musicals and modern rock operas. This season, for example, the Skylight swings so far as to open with the classic “The Barber of Seville” (another of those “Bugs Bunny” operas) and close this June with a production of “Rent.”

“Day/Night” is playing in the Cabot Theatre, so for my $20, I got fifth-row seats in what appeared to be a classic, although slightly miniaturized, opera house—a lot better than the typical theater setting I’d expected.

From my position, I had both an excellent view of the stage and the theater itself. The unique touches, like decorative ornamentation on the walls and two balconies and the classical-style mural adorning the theater’s ceiling, create an atmosphere that feels more refined and artsy than most other theaters in the area.

I also got a good look at the surrounding audience. As you might expect, the audience’s age skews high, but there was a fair smattering of teens and twenty-somethings in attendance, both up in front with me and further back in the balconies.

The show itself is a perfect mix of the sort of shows found at the Skylight. The first half, “A Day in Hollywood,” is a musical revue paying tribute to the golden age of movie musicals in the 1930s, and is performed almost entirely like a traditional opera, with only minimal dialogue. The second, “A Night in the Ukraine,” is a tribute to the Marx Brothers musicals of the time.

“Day” opens a fleet of ushers at the infamous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the site of hundreds of celebrity handprints and footprints in Hollywood.

This is merely the framing device for the more operatic half of the production, however, and the cast soon bursts into a lighthearted series of songs, including everything from standards of the day like “Ain’t We Got Fun” and “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” to lyrical works that highlight the time period itself, such as an ode to film clichés, which concludes with the cast rattling off a list of the era’s best, and a robotic chanting of the restrictive Hollywood Production Code that censored language and behavior during the ‘30s.

After the intermission, the feel of the show abruptly shifts, from a tribute to movie musicals to a movie musical itself. “A Night in the Ukraine,” loosely based on “The Bear,” a one-act play by Anton Chekhov, is a Marx Brothers-esque production that could easily stand alone as a complete work.

“Night” opens in the manor of a wealthy widow (Carol Greif Schuele) who is trying to recover from the death of her husband with the help of her servants, played as  Chico and Harpo Marx archetypes by Benjamin Howes and Ray Jivoff, respectively. Conflict soon erupts, however, when an unscrupulous lawyer (the Groucho Marx stereotype, played by Norman Moses) shows up seeking money, and his carriage driver, Constantine (Chase Stoeger), begins to woo the widow’s daughter, Nina (Melinda Pfundstein).

The plot’s a bit thin from there, but after a few minutes, you aren’t in much of a position to care, having willingly suspended belief for the sake of the play’s humor, which is available in spades. There are puns, gags, slapstick, tons of musical comedy, and even some fourth-wall-breaking jokes, just to keep things interesting.

It’s easily the better half of “Day/Night,” and my only negative critique of the whole play is that there’s such a strong shift between the first act and the second. However, the overall quality of both halves makes this somewhat of a non-issue.

So, if you’re looking for a fun, classy evening out, consider a night at the opera with Hollywood and the Marx Brothers. “Day/Night” will be playing through April 4. Tickets can be purchased at the Broadway Theatre Center, via phone at 414-291-7800 or online at www.skylightopera.com