One of Emmerich Kálmán’s early operettas, The Duchess of Chicago, got a Tinsel-Town-inspired staging in its première at the Budapest Operetta Theatre. Snow White, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Dracula and Superman populated the stage in director Attila Béres’ tip of the hat to Hollywood in this revival of one of Kálmán’s best scores.

<i>The Duchess of Chicago</i> © Eszter Gordon
The Duchess of Chicago
© Eszter Gordon

Béres’ production, with a Hungarian libretto by Attila Lörinczy, was an updated version of the original, which opened in Vienna in 1928. He deleted some of the original songs and inserted three others from another Kálmán score and a film, in addition to adding an entire role (that of the Grand Duchess of Silvaria). No matter that this version wasn’t the pristine original: Béres’ treatment, beginning with silent-film style sequences featuring honky-tonk piano accompaniment and continuing with a congenial narrative inhabited by a mix of droll and sympathetic characters, offered up a dazzling evening that took listeners back to a pivotal point in the development of operetta.

The all-star cast featured Mónika Fischl in the title role of wealthy American heiress Mary Lloyd, who travels from Chicago to the tiny Balkan kingdom of Sylvaria to have some fun with her society girlfriends, and Zsolt Homonnay as her leading man Boris, the kingdom's heir to the throne. Soloists, chorus, dancers, two stage bands and a pit orchestra, led by Tamás Bolba, performed the score’s plethora of catchy tunes and dance numbers with the retro zest of the Ziegfeld era’s extravaganzas, as seen through a Hollywood lens.

<i>The Duchess of Chicago</i> © Eszter Gordon
The Duchess of Chicago
© Eszter Gordon

Fischl’s rendition of the fiercely independent Mary was an exhilarating ride through a remarkable repertory of wide-ranged songs while dancing full speed ahead. She skillfully negotiated the required blend of operatic and speech-based singing while inhabiting a uniquely American persona (speaking plenty of English phrases) that presented a thoroughly new template of female to the Old World of Europe. Her opening song’s text, “American women, we chase our dreams” set up the challenge for everyone in Silvaria to grasp, as Mary offers to buy the royal palace for eight million dollars, prince included, so the residents could pay off their debts.

Homonnay’s Boris enters with top-volume bluster that attests to his need for control and later, as we learn, his deep fear of change. His stalwart tenor served him well in a breakneck pace of simultaneous dancing and singing. His initial response to Mary was a mixture of disgust and attraction as he made it abundantly clear that her American jazz was “the devil’s instrument,” and after hearing a jazz version of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody: “You’ve befouled Liszt!” He immediately trots out his own gypsy trio to counter her with a Csardas and sentimental waltzes. But eventually, and despite knowing that Mary had ‘purchased’ him, Boris becomes beguiled by both her insouciance and her dancing ability, as she teaches him how to do the Charleston and the Slow Fox.

In addition to Boris and Mary, other couples and characters emerged: the charming romance of the wacky daughter of nearby Morania’s Grand Duke and her suitor, Mary’s assistant James Bondy (deliciously played by Szilvi Szendi and Máté Kerényi, respectively); and the Grand Duchess (Zsuzsa Kalocsai) who discovers that her long-lost lover is Mary’s father, Benjamin Lloyd (Ottlik Ádám). The comic trio of the “Eccentric Young Ladies Club” from Chicago consisting of Mary, Edith Rockefeller (portrayed with deft comedic skill by Andrea Szulák), and Sarah Rotschild (the cartoon-voiced Annamária Zábrádi) consistently added hilarity.

Act II began with an extravagant costume ball, with all the major Disney cartoon characters, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Charlie Chaplin, the Statue of Liberty and Dracula (as played by Hungary’s famous actor Béla Lugosi). The astounding array of novelty costumes were designed by Rita Velich.

<i>The Duchess of Chicago</i> © Eszter Gordon
The Duchess of Chicago
© Eszter Gordon

The collective vocal acumen in delivering Kálmán’s inspired songs (especially “Oh, Say Chicago!”) was exemplary. The outstanding dancing, for which three choreographers were employed, featured Chippendale-inspired male dancers, folk dancers, step dancers, flappers and tappers and athletic Broadway styles. On every level of the performing disciplines involved, Budapest Operetta Theatre rivals any other operetta company in the world.

Another important factor in BOT’s profile is the complete operetta repertoire of Kálmán. As the 19th century’s preoccupation with romantic waltzes began to diminish, new styles from the West in the new century influenced musical theatre, thanks to Kálmán, who traveled outside of Hungary a great deal. He was the first composer to inject the American Jazz Age into operetta.

While this version of Duchess contained many anachronistic, albeit amusing, elements, the overall artistic integrity was solid. A major share of the pleasure was hearing Kálmán’s brilliant score, which should be heard much more often around the globe. At the curtain call, BOT’s artistic director KERO announced to the audience that Kálmán’s daughter Yvonne was in the audience. We were indeed in the presence of royalty.