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Susan Stroman sets ‘The Merry Widow’ dancing

They call her “Stro.”

Theater audiences first got to know Susan Stroman as a choreographer, especially for her ingenious, technically challenging, 1992 Tony Award-winning work on “Crazy For You,” the hit Gershwin-scored Broadway musical. She went on to win a second Tony for choreography in 1994, after she collaborated with Hal Prince on a grand-scale revival of “Show Boat.” And then it was on to her own creation — a three-part “dance play,” “Contact,” that debuted at the Lincoln Center Theater in 1999.

In 2001, some wise guy by the name of Mel Brooks hired Stroman to both direct and choreograph his new musical, “The Producers,” the phenomenal success for which she racked up yet another two Tony Awards. She teamed up with Brooks once again in 2007, as director and choreographer of the musical “Young Frankenstein.” Since then, among her long list of credits, have been the 2010 production of the Kander and Ebb musical, “The Scottsboro Boys,” and, in 2013, “Big Fish.”

Director Susan Stroman (top center), with Renee Fleming (from left), Thomas Hampson, and cast dancers in a rehearsal at the Lyric Opera for “The Merry Widow.” | Photo: James Foster for the Sun-Times
Director Susan Stroman (top center), with Renee Fleming (from left), Thomas Hampson, and cast dancers in a rehearsal at the Lyric Opera for “The Merry Widow.” | Photo: James Foster for the Sun-Times

‘THE MERRY WIDOW’

When: Nov. 14 – Dec. 13

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $20 – $329

Info: (312) 827-5600; www.lyricopera.org

Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission

A few years ago Stroman got a call from Peter Gelb, general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, who asked if she’d be interested in directing a production of “The Merry Widow,” the most popular of the many operettas by Franz Lehar, the Austro-Hungarian composer who helped define the Belle Epoque. With a libretto by Viktor Leon and Leo Stein based on a French play, the show spins the story of Hanna Glawari, a rich and beautiful widow of humble origins, and her countrymen’s desperate attempt to keep her money “at home,” in order to save the bankrupt Grand Duchy of Pontevedro (the fictional Balkan principality of her birth). To do that she would have to marry a man with the same heritage, but the schemers’ choice of playboy Count Danilovich, Hanna’s old flame, is hardly her choice.

The operetta form is often described as the link between European grand opera and the Broadway musical.

“I think Peter [Gelb] thought of me because each of the three acts in ‘The Merry Widow’ has a big dance scene,” said Stroman. “The show opens with a grandly elegant waltz. It has a big folk dance in the second act. And the third act features an elaborate can-can for the grisettes [the term for good-time girls with working-class roots], with Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long really outdoing himself. I knew the music, and loved it, so I immediately said yes.”

The Met’s 2015 production is now being remounted by Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Renee Fleming reprising her performance as Hanna — a role, according to Stroman, the soprano “was born to play, with that sparkle in her eye, a perfect sense of flirtation, and a mix of earthiness and seduction that captures the essence of her character — a farmer’s daughter who came into a great deal of money.”

“There is more dialogue in this show than the usual opera, and I always treat singers as actors whose singing is backed by motivation,” said Stroman. “The difference is that the vocal element is the most important thing in opera, and there are no microphones in the opera house as there are on Broadway, where you can even ask a performer to hang upside down. It’s very important to know where the singers should stand so they are heard ideally.” [“The Merry Widow” will be sung in English, with English supertitles assuring that the witty libretto is crystal clear.]

“Also very important in this show is a sense of the manners of the period — how the women carry themselves at the ball, how others use their lifted chests to suggest the proud heritage of their folk dances (which I’ve made up from my own mix of Russian, Ukrainian and Hungarian styles), and then how the grisettes behave.”

Stroman tapped three dancers from the New York production, but was impressed with the high level of dancers she found at auditions here including Ariane Dolan (a frequent performer in musicals), and Shannon Alvis and Jamy Meek, both former members of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. A number of familiar Chicago actors also are in the cast, including Jeff Dumas, Jonathan Weir, Jennie Sophia, Fred Zimmerman and McKinley Carter.

Stroman’s next project, on a decidedly smaller Off Broadway scale, is staging the premiere of Colman Domingo’s play, “Dot,” a comedy about a dysfunctional family in Philadelphia, with Broadway and television veteran Leslie Uggams starring as an inner-city matriarch suffering from dementia, and whose three adult children gather for the holidays. It is set to open in February at the Vineyard Theatre.