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OPERA REVIEW : Houston's Campy, Pop 'Where's Dick?'

May 26, 1989|WILLIAM ALBRIGHT

HOUSTON — The Dick being sought in Stewart Wallace's teasingly titled "Where's Dick?" is not Dick Wagner, Dick Strauss or even Dick Rodgers.

It's Dick Tracy, and the composers lurking in the wings of this alternative New Vaudeville opera are Steve Sondheim, Lenny Bernstein in his "Trouble in Tahiti" stage, Minimalism Main Man Phil Glass, Johnny Gay of "Beggar's Opera" fame, and generic rock, blues, jazz and even tango tunesmiths.

"Where's Dick?" was written on a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, workshopped at Opera/Omaha and given two concert readings at Playwrights Horizons, the noted Off-Broadway theater company. It received a stylish but only intermittently satisfying world premiere Wednesday night in Miller Outdoor Theatre by Texas Opera Theater, the touring arm of the Houston Grand Opera.

The hero of Chester Gould's classic comic strip is needed in "Where's Dick?" to foil a passel of baddies so outlandishly cartoonish they make the villains in television's "Batman" look slice-of-life.

The swat stick-wielding Ma Paddle and a scroungy Santa kidnap ventriloquist dummies, force-feed them pickles of forgetfulness and sell them to new mommies. When they bag Mrs. Heimlich's wooden son, she tries to buy another so she will still have a child to abuse. Stump Tower is a midget developer who wants to build a skyscraper on the site of Ma's bogus orphanage. The Rev. J.J. Newright and Sister Immacula saw people in half and exchange the bottom halves.

Baby Snowflake is an albino gorilla hungry for virgin flesh. Like that of Fate Spritely, who always carries a bridal veil and Niagara Falls travel brochures in her purse just in case she bumps into a prospective groom. Like Junior, the bumbling would-be detective who reels around the sharply raked, game-board stage like a top in perpetual search of Dick Tracy.

Junior never finds his hero. But the opera--narrated by a Kabuki countertenor who's named Boldface Headlines and dressed like a living newspaper--ends with an ensemble declaration that we must look for heroism in ourselves, not somebody else.

Though trained at Juilliard, the Houston-raised Wallace has grounded "Where's Dick?" in pop music. At their boldest and best, his torch ballads, patter songs, gospel shouts and rock-based numbers.

But the campy humor of Wallace's aggressively non-arty score and Michael Korie's modestly naughty libretto gets numbingly thin when stretched over nearly three sprawling, erratic hours.

Richard Foreman, who founded the avant-garde Ontological-Hysteric Theater in 1968, staged the opera with tons of outrageous humor. Indeed, there was so much intricate funny business that the performers could have used a few more rehearsals to master it.

HGO music director John DeMain--who will conduct Los Angeles Music Center Opera's "Orpheus in the Underworld," opening June 14--led his 18-member, hidden-under-the-stage orchestra with firmness and panache. Jim Buff's costumes and Christina Giannelli's lighting enjoyed fitting comic-strip exaggeration.

The 14-member cast consisted of opera singers and Broadway-musical performers. Acting Company alumnus Henry Stram, his bald pate ringed with collar-length fringe, made an ideally waiflike and nimble Junior, and soprano Karen Patricia McVoy was a nicely vulnerable Fate Spritely. Angelina Reaux's singing as Baby Snowflake was a bit lean and edgy, but Natalie Oliver and Consuelo Hill belted splendidly as Sister Immacula and Police Chief Blowhard.

Cindy Benson's Ma Paddle recalled "Annie's" Miss Hannigan, and bass Wilbur Pauley rumbled darkly as Santa. Ken Jennings and bass-baritone Daryl Henriksen were aptly oily as Stump Tower and the Rev. Newright.

Emphasizing for effect the break between falsetto and his natural baritone, countertenor Randall Wong sang Boldface Headlines' slow, slightly eerie music with pure, ethereal tone. Joyce Castle's mezzo was neither pure nor ethereal, but her torchy singing and broadly vampy acting as Mrs. Heimlich stole the show anyway.

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