Bravo, Caruso

Stephan Espinosa (left) and Michael Ballam co-star in “Bravo, Caruso!” as opera legend Enrique Caruso and his faithful valet Mario Fantini.

Given gifted performers and inspired direction, an intimate small-cast play can still have a big dramatic impact. Local audiences were treated to a perfect example of that theatrical lesson when the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre recently debuted the drama “Bravo, Caruso!”

This oddly non-musical tribute to early 20th Century opera superstar Enrico Caruso could easily have been dry as dust. Instead, this lucid and passionate production leaves you filled with new-found respect for Caruso and total admiration for the two actors recapturing a crucial moment in the legendary tenor’s life.

Naturally, UFOMT impresario Michael Ballam plays Caruso. Who else would dare to undertake such a larger-then-life role? But Ballam’s portrayal includes not a hint of hero-worship. His performance is richly nuanced, reducing the operatic giant to human dimensions complete with idiosyncrasies and foibles with which we can all identify.

Ballam shares the stage with his real-life son-in-law Stefan Espinosa as Caruso’s faithful valet Mario Fantini. A lessor actor might have been reduced to being Ballam’s straight-man in this role, but Espinosa holds his own as the opera star’s long-suffering companion. As always, Espinosa contributes his trademark brilliant bits of comic business along with thinly veiled sarcastic asides that tend to mitigate Caruso’s egomania.

Skillfully guiding this ambitious collaboration between her father and her husband is director Vanessa Ballam. Kudos also to Jack Shouse for an impressively vintage backstage set and Nathan Schilz for sound design.

The central conceit of William Luce’s script for “Bravo, Caruso!” is that the audience becomes two journalists seeking to interview the tenor prior to what would ultimately be his final public appearance on Christmas Eve, 1920. Thus, the performers not only interact with each other but also frequently break “the fourth wall” by addressing the audience directly. That gimmick works beautifully in some scenes, especially Ballam’s climatic soliloquy in the second act.

“Bravo, Caruso!” also serves as a nostalgic reminder of a golden age when Caruso and other operatic giants were as popular as movie and TV stars today. Luce’s script is peppered with chatty bits of gossip about Caruso’s contemporaries, including renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini, legendary bass Feodor Chaliapin and others.

Additional performances of “Bravo, Caruso!” are slated at the Utah Theatre in downtown Logan through July 30. For ticket information, visit utahfestival.org.

Charlie Schill has directed and performed with theater groups in the United States and overseas. He also served as theater critic for daily newspapers in Texas and Japan.

Kevin Opsahl is a staff writer and features editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at 435-752-2121 ext. 1016 or by email at kopsahl@hjnews.com