From start to finish, Houston Ballet’s The Merry Widow is an absolute delight.
Ronald Hynd’s comic romp, set in Paris in 1905, has a simple story. The beleaguered, elderly Pontevedrian ambassador, Baron Zeta (Christopher Coomer on opening night), has the unenviable task of wrangling an appropriate suitor for the wealthy widow Hanna (Jessica Collado). Pontevedro, it seems, is on the brink of financial ruin and keeping the widow’s fortune in the country is its only hope of staving off bankruptcy. Count Danilo (Chun Wai Chan) is the designated bridegroom, if the ambassador can keep him sober long enough to propose.
Things get complicated by the fact that Hanna and Danilo have a history. Years earlier Danilo and Hanna had a love affair but he eventually rejected her because she was just a lowly peasant. Now the wealthy widow is poised to return the favor.
Danilo and Hanna aren’t the only ones in love. Valencienne (Melody Mennite), the ambassador’s young wife, is having a dalliance with the French attaché Camille (Ian Casady).
Collado and Chan are captivating on stage. The pair’s impressive dancing skills, considerable acting talents, and obvious chemistry are enchanting.
In her first performance as Hanna, Collado possesses the perfect mix of sensuality and maturity to make the widow both desirable and smart. She knows the ambassador is after her money, and rightly questions Danilo’s motives, but her resistance melts at his touch. Their various pas de duex ache with desire, the longing between them palpable. Collado’s Hanna is self-possessed and shows real wit.
Reeling with drunken exuberance, Chun Wai Chan performs with abandon. His solos are triumphant, masterful. He absolutely owns the stage and seems to relish the role. His bravado makes his moments of vulnerability with Hanna all the more poignant.
Melody Mennite is vivacious as the ambassador’s young wife, Valencienne. A flurry of flirtatious giggles, Valencienne is responsible for much of story’s humor. Yes, she’s having an illicit affair and making a cuckold of her doddering husband but gosh, she looks like she’s having a lot of fun doing it.
Ronald Hynd’s choreography is deceptive. It may seem simple but is actually very demanding. There are lots (and lots) of lifts, twirls, and an abundance of graceful waltzes. Large crowd scenes have dozens of dancers moving in perfect unison. The precision and elegance of Hynd’s movements test the dancers’ stamina and require excellent technique.
Even the members of Houston Ballet II and the Houston Ballet Academy that populate the crowd scenes are required to simultaneously dance and act, performing in unison one moment and then as individual characters the next.
Also of note are Roberta Guidi Di Bagno’s costumes and scenic design. The Merry Widow is set at the turn of the 20th century, remember, before the grim realities of World War I set in. Paris was a decadent, glittering jewel. Di Bagno’s costumes capture the beauty of the era. The women’s gowns are lovely, long, and flowing, while allowing the dancers to move freely. The women, including the guests at a ball, wear tiaras with intricate Gibson girl updos. The men range from former military wear tails and top hats.
The widow’s gowns are especially spectacular. For her entrance in the first act, Hanna wears a sparkling black and silver gown—widow’s weeds, indeed. She’s so stunning, she literally stops the action as everyone turns to look at her. In another scene, she enters wearing a striking white feather boa over her white gown, dripping in diamonds. The boa seems to vibrate even when the widow is standing still.
There’s only one misstep when it comes to the costumes. In the third act, Valencienne appears in an orange outfit, a cape with a high collar over a lackluster gown. It misses the mark on two points. One, she looks a bit like a pumpkin. Two, the gown matches the cabaret’s orange table cloths and cancan girls’ outfits so she tends to blend in rather than stand out. The irrepressible, high-spirited Valencienne doesn’t blend.
Music Director Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet orchestra flew through the lighthearted score, providing sweeping waltzes and a bit of the cancan, punctuating the ballet’s humor with well-timed accents.
Thru June 9. Tickets from $25. Wortham Theater Center, 615 Texas Ave. 713-227-2787. More info and tickets at houstonballet.org.