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Petaluma Theater Review: Cinnabar’s ‘Barber’ is ‘A gem of a show’

To tackle one of the most famous comic operas of all time in a small theatre may seem overly ambitious, but the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma is now in its 46th season, and they have a long and successful history of mounting a fantastic range of theatrical productions. Their current, charming production of “The Barber of Seville,” co-produced with the equally successful Pocket Opera of San Francisco, is a case in point. At turns funny, clever, and touching, this gem of a show, directed by Elly Lichenstein with James Pelican, is filled with strong performances by both the cast and the musicians. Donald Pippin’s adapted English language book brilliantly captures the effusive warmth of the original Italian while showcasing Rossini’s magnificent score.

The story remains familiar enough, beginning with a young count who has fallen in love with a beautiful young woman. Posing as a poor student (to hide his true wealth and status), he hires a troop of musicians to serenade his beloved from the street below her window. After seeing and hearing the count, the young lady falls in love with him as well. Yet, their happiness faces considerable obstacles.

Count Almaviva (played with dashing grace by Sergio Gonzalez) and the beautiful Rosina (a radiant Maya Kherani) must first outwit Rosina’s lecherous guardian, the pompous and controlling Dr. Bartolo (played with a comic touch by Lee Strawn).

The young lovers are aided by the count’s former servant, Figaro, the barber of Seville (played as everyone’s favorite uncle by a charismatic and vibrant Igor Vieira).

These performers, and the rest of the supporting cast, all turn in remarkable performances. Gonzalez’ masterful tenor gives us a convincing Almaviva, alternating perfectly between the noble young count’s nervous apprehension and his bold confidence. Kherani’s Rosina is a witty revelation, whose comic reactions are nearly as entertaining as her superlative vocal performance. Vieira’s Figaro remains a master of clever social manipulation who renders his character’s famous vocal moments with great skill and finesse. Strawn’s deft Dr. Bartolo presents us with a villain who, for all his atrocious behavior, remains vaguely sympathetic. Like an old dog rapidly losing his remaining teeth to old age, he invites our pity more than anything else.

The orchestra, under the direction of maestro Mary Chun, delivers Rossini’s score with great verve and aplomb. Visibly occupying a stage left alcove, the orchestra remains an integral part of the production, and the musicians are often pointedly and humorously acknowledged by the performers, which underscores an important point. This production refuses to take itself too seriously, and the lighthearted acknowledgement of the inclusive nature of comedy subtly winks at both the audience and at the conventions of opera itself.

The strong supporting cast also offer many great moments.

The count’s servant, Fiorello (Steve Kahn), and his initial group of street musicians (Brian Carillo, Dennis Drury, Jose Hernandez, and J.T. Williams) later morph into a Keystone Cops version of the city officers, all the while serving up variously convincing and hilarious moments in great style. Dr. Bartolo’s co-plotter, Don Basilio (played with alcoholic gusto by Jason Sarten), stumbles his congenially self-interested way through the action, readily consuming his friend’s liquor and pocketing small items of value that he finds in Bartolo’s house. Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper, Berta (played with lusty enthusiasm by Krista Wigle), watches over the general love wrangling with a mixture of disapproval and longing, often struggling with her laundry basket.

Jolie O’Dell’s great costumes accentuate the performers wonderfully, making each of the players look terrific. Joseph Elwick’s set design for the doctor’s house successfully combines comfortable material surroundings with little elements of fussiness (the cut velvet window valences, for example) that so characterize Dr. Bartolo himself. Peter Q. Parish’s lights show off everything to great advantage.

Finding opera of this caliber anywhere would be a gift, and in Sonoma County this production represents a remarkable opportunity for North Bay residents to see solid operatic talent without driving to San Francisco. People who enjoy opera will almost certainly love Cinnabar Theater’s current “Barber of Seville.”

People who don’t think they enjoy opera will be likely to love it, too.

In either case, you’ll be doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t go and see this one before it’s gone.

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