The Chocolate Soldier is gloriously fun and immaculately sung, now playing on the Toronto stage
Love and war seem to go hand-in-hand in Toronto Operetta Theatre’s The Chocolate Soldier, with neither being quite so noble as they first appear. From the boom of canons to the final love arias of couples brought together in the aftermath of war, this light and frothy comic tale is a joy from start to finish, as much a delight to the ears as chocolate is to the tongue.
Based on Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, the story begins with Bulgaria and Serbia at war. As Nadina pines away for her Bulgarian soldier fiancé, her youthful dreams are shattered when Lieutenant Bummerli, Swiss but fighting for the Serbs, stumbles unceremoniously into her bedroom. Drawn in against her will by his charm and roguish humour, she conspires with her mother and cousin to keep him hidden from enemy soldiers. What follows is a comedy of manners that involves pining lovers, mismatched couples, incriminating evidence and several engagements, all in the name of love—or something like it, at least.
This is a comedy of manners in the purest sense, but there’s a fine sheen of moral ambiguity to the whole thing that lends it a certain edge. The characters are appealingly human, and frequently make selfish decisions. Most characters engage in deception of some kind, and the show is joyfully uninterested in moralizing, but rather invites its audience to go along for the ride: and that ride is a fun one, as the ladies scramble to keep their indiscretions hidden from the men in their lives, with Bummerli acting as their ally.
What really makes it all click is a uniformly charming cast: Jennifer Taverner’s Nadina is plucky and winning, with a gorgeous soprano that soars through her arias; Michael Nyby as Bummerli is easygoing and charming without being condescending, a real risk with the part—his chocolate soldier (so named because of the chocolates he keeps in his bag in place of ammunition) is believable both as a desperate man trying to flirt his way out of a problem and as a pining lover, having realized the truth of his feelings. Their chemistry is sweet and believable, and you really buy their helpless fondness for each other.
It’s a lot of fun to watch Bummerli team up with Nadina and her family in order to keep their shared secrets from being revealed: Anne Caroline Macdonald is girlish and clever as Nadina’s cousin Masha, while Eugenia Dermentzis is hilarious in the role of Nadina’s mother, devoted to her daughter to the end but equally charmed by Bummerli.
It’s Cian Horrobin’s Alexius, though, who steals the show with his wry delivery of Nadina’s humourless fiancé. His character steadfastly refuses to let anyone define him in absolutely any way—even going so far as to suggest that he is never hungry, never clever, never anything. It’s the sort of joke that could get old, but never does thanks to Horrobin’s commitment to the part (and his booming voice doesn’t hurt either).
As for the music, it’s hard not to leave the The Chocolate Soldier without a tune on your lips—if nothing else, the score is hummable, mixing the sumptuous vocal talents of the company with lilting, quick and versatile melodies. Straus’ score is flirtatious and clever, balancing wry comedy with sweet outpourings of love, and sung immaculately by the cast at large. It’s the sort of score worth returning to again and again, and it pairs well with the Austenian look of the stage, awash in pale colours that let the blue-coated Bummerli stand out all the more.
What makes for a true hero? In the end, it really doesn’t matter–the operetta seems to resist the idea that any such thing really exists, and that’s okay.
With a strong cast, engaging romance and a soaring score, there’s much to like about the Toronto Operetta Theatre’s latest outing. The Chocolate Soldier, like the confection it’s named for, is pure sugary delight.
- The Chocolate Soldier plays on April 26, 28-30, 2017.
- Performances begin at 8 pm for the 28th, 3 pm on the 29th and 30th at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front Street East).
- Tickets range from $49-$95 and can be purchased online, by phone by calling (416) 366-7723 or 1-800-708-6754 or at the St. Lawrence Centre box office.
Jennifer Taverner (Nadina) and Michael Nyby (Bummerli). Photographer: Gary Beechey (BDS Studios Inc.)