SAN DIEGO — Two hours of "The Student Prince" would be enough for any dedicated Starlight theater fan to endure. Two hours and 45 minutes of Sigmund Romberg's outdated operetta is just beyond the tolerance level for beer and barmaids in "good old Heidelberg."
And with no happy ending to pay off for hours of sloshing sentimentality, it took a lot of nerve for the San Diego Civic Light Opera to stage this 62-year-old operatic vocal display.
Dorothy Donnelly's book builds a very weak story around the Hungarian composer's songs, none of which bears the charm today that they must have held for 1920s audiences, which reportedly gobbled up this simplistic tale (preserved on film in 1954).
Karl Franz (Bruce Johnson) is a youthful prince in the spring of 1860, destined to rule the fictional kingdom of Karlsberg some day soon, but given a year's "freedom" to study at the University of Heidelberg while delicate royal negotiations are under way for his betrothal to a proper princess.
He is accompanied on his adventure by an aging tutor, Dr. Engel. The portly scholar (Bob Howard) has filled the overprotected prince's imagination with sentimental recollections of beer drinking and barmaid sampling in the student-dominated town of Heidelberg.
In 1986, we have to take Engel's word for it. The activities in Heidelberg seem very dull, steeped in sacred camaraderie among students more foreign for their quaint fraternal attitudes and silly military uniforms than for their German homeland.
The word student here, in this 19th-Century sexist setting, carries an exclusively male bias. These students don't study much, either, and women are mythical objects to be teased and sung about, then tossed aside when they are no longer convenient.
The prince's extravagantly fussy valet, Lutz (Joe Ross), and his "valet's valet," Hubert (Jim Marshall), work very hard to liven this production with overblown comedy. They do provide some relief, but the patient should have been led to the grave 43 years ago, after its second Broadway revival.
Karl Franz falls predictably in love with the head barmaid, Kathie (Alice Pierce), who joins him soon after they meet in the show's "hit" number, "Deep in My Heart."
Director J. Sherwood Montgomery oddly chose to stage this romantic high point upstage left, in a rose arbor that seems as distant from us as this shallowly depicted love affair. There is one point in his defense: Karl Franz does indeed turn out to be a hollow lover, too easily dismissing his Kathie when matters of state press upon him, in the form of an equally cold princess named Margaret (Anita Colet).
No, there's no final twist. Very little tug and tear of troubled choices, just a straight-line unfolding of events that offer nothing in the way of dramatic tension.
Obviously, the music was to reign supreme in "The Student Prince." But it, too, is old, and seems as if we should be listening to it on a scratchy, high-pitched recording. Milton Greene and his orchestra bravely gave it their best, but Romberg does not come across as a composer for the ages.
Johnson and Pierce are true to their operatic backgrounds, more pleasing as singers than as star-crossed lovers. Pierce over-mugs the coy ingenue bit, while Johnson never finds much to do beyond looking handsome and young between his frequent vocal numbers.
Long years of Starlight seasoning prove invaluable for this particular chorus. Their acting is quite good; their singing would be better if the words could be understood (a real necessity when so much of the dialogue passes in operatic song); and their dance numbers (choreographed by James Roddy) are ageless delights that sweep some of the dust from this "Prince" under the rug.
In minor roles, Mindy Hull as barmaid Gretchen and Richard Roemer as Captain Tarnitz display the kind of attention-grabbing sparkle so much of this production is lacking. Katherine Faulconer is all poise and skill and perfectly amusing as the Grand Duchess Anastasia.
Costume designer Tara has contributed some lovely pastel satin ball gowns and barmaid ruffles to make up for the tacky student uniforms. Elsie Sawchuk's scenery is pretty, decorative if somewhat dingy for the palace scenes, but some of the painted scrims look faded and tattered, billowing and clinging embarrassingly to the set pieces behind them.
Bill Gorgenson's lighting picked up actors that should have been hidden behind a scrim in Act II, and generally follows the sentimental spirit by suddenly dropping to melodramatic spots in the middle of a sunny or moonlit scene.
Starlight can only be forgiven for dragging "The Student Prince" out of mothballs because it has something of real substance and interest awaiting patient playgoers later this season. It helps to think of last year's "A Chorus Line" and the upcoming "Evita" while enduring the current fizzle.
"THE STUDENT PRINCE"
Music by Sigmund Romberg. Book and lyrics by Dorothy V. Connelly. Directed by J. Sherwood Montgomery. Musical director-conductor, Milton Greene. Choral director, Fred Rigby. Choreography, James Roddy. Scenic design, Elsie Sawchuk. Lighting, Bill Gorgenson. Costumes, Tara. Sound design, Bill Lewis. Production stage manager, Jimmy Ray Hutton. Starring Bruce Johnson, Alice Pierce, Joe Ross, Richard Roemer, Anita Colet and Bob Howard. Nightly at 8:30 p.m. (except Monday) through July 20 at Starlight Bowl, Balboa Park, San Diego. Produced by San Diego Civic Light Opera Assn.