BY SANDY STAGGS
In this age of digital love “connections” on Tinder, Match.com, and Grinder, meeting someone new via an old-fashion face-to-face bonding (without the benefit of pre-screening) may be just what the doctor ordered. Or in the case of Converse Opera Theatre’s radical new production Speed Dating Tonight! – just what the Matchmaker ordered.
Set at Delaney’s Irish Pub (okay, a facsimile in Daniel Recital Hall of the real Delaney’s in downtown Spartanburg which provided many props such as liquor bottles and signs, etc.), Speed Dating Tonight! By Michael Ching and conceived by Dean Anthony is a peculiar concoction of operatic and musical theatre vignettes – a la about 50 characters and date arias.
A true ensemble piece – this production features 20 cast members playing some 30 roles in the comic opera who stop in Delaney’s in search of companionship.
Speed dating in some form or another has been around since the 1970s but really took off in the U.S. in the late 1990s within the Jewish singles scene in New York.
The darling Lisa Louw plays the Dating Coordinator and Cupid who assigns them numbers and co-mingles them together in various pairings in a game of musical chairs with couples allotted five minutes on a mini-date to strike gold – or most often, out.
And, as Ching has some 50 characters/date “arias” in the opera (most around two minutes long), directors have unparalleled latitude to pick and choose among them for their own vision and to cast needs. Therefore, no two productions are even remotely the same.
The result is a wholly twisted and uniquely fresh approach with as many point of views and personality types imaginable from a shy Origami Girl (Emilee Batson) to the Cat Lover (Kathryn Monroe), and Neat Freak (sung by Anna Neely) to the Steampunk chick – “not a hipster” in a sparkling metallic bronze dress.
Just what pertinent information can one glean from a five-minute encounter in a bar? Quite a bit unless someone’s first query is on the death-knell topics of marriage or children instead of “What do you do?” and “Where are you from?”
The lyrics consistently sung with aplomb and often are about the most mundane of topica or traverse the mundane to the meta-contemporary.
As a women’s college, Converse generally recruits male actors for their productions and several prominent Greenville performers are featured guest artists in this show including Jon Kilpatrick as the Busboy (Kilpatrick is also a grad student and assistant to the director); tenor Nicholas Hawkins as the bartender; and Dave LaPage and Chris Cashon in multiple roles.
Rounding out the “staff” is cocktail waitress Erin O’Neil who has a dazzling duet with Hawkins in “Order Up,” hinting at a budding romance.
I can honestly say I have never heard anyone express their love of scrubbing the bathroom in operatic form (“Neat Freak”) or as Cashon (who shines and dominates the proceedings as multiple characters including a fitness fanatic) belt text jargon “O-M-G! W-T-F?”. And one line even features the “F” bomb.
The arias, music directed by Dr. Keith Jones and played by a live 5-piece Ensemble, range in styles from LaPage’s seductive jazzy Buick in “Car Man” to a duet parodying “Papageno/Papagena” from Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE.
Speed Dating Tonight! first premiered in 2013 at the Janiec Opera Company at the Brevard Music Center, with over 70 productions worldwide since.
Directed by Dr. Susan Lyle, Speed Dating is a joyous exercise in comedic realism with a plethora of grand voices and perspectives. The brisk pacing and hyperbolized personality flaws are also engrossing. And though the brevity of the pieces do naturally lend to choppy transitions from one to the next sometimes, accumulatively the opera presents a bold case for pushing the boundaries of the art form.
Kudos to Dr. Lyle for exposing the Upstate to this freaky work.
Speed Dating Tonight continues Saturday, January 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, January 27 @ 3 p.m. in Daniel Recital Hall at Converse College in Spartanburg.Tickets are $10 at the door.