Lyric and Second City stage ideal satire in ‘a house of Wagner’

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Jesse Case (at piano) plays Richard Wagner with opera singers Jonah D. Winston and Tracy Cantin in “Longer! Louder! Wagner,” a collaboration of the Lyric Opera Chicago and The Second City. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Collaboration is the name of the game for all of The Second City’s improv exploits, but in recent seasons the company has expanded the meaning of that term, teaming up with both the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Now, in its second collaboration with the Lyric — “Longer! Louder! Wagner!” — it has truly tapped into a richly comic vein of pure Rhine gold. Subtitled “The Second City Wagner Companion,” this original, 90-minute musical comedy, inspired by the German composer’s monumental, four-part “Ring Cycle,” also happens to be a deliciously naughty bit of sanctioned heresy with an aptly zany script and a couple of sensational “legit” operatic voices all part of the mix.

To begin with, the Lyric, which has just embarked on its all new production of the complete Cycle that will unfold over four years (it began with “Das Rheingold” in early October), is gleefully satirizing its own work. On top of that, it has welcomed The Second City (and several fabulously “legit” opera singers) into its very own house to perform this mischief. Well, not quite “the house,” but the spacious, 300-seat William Mason Rehearsal Hall, which has been outfitted with gray velvet banquettes and cabaret style seating.

‘LONGER! LOUDER! WAGNER! ’

Highly recommended

When: Through Oct. 30

Where: Lyric’s William Mason Rehearsal Hall, 40 N. Wacker

Tickets: $35 – $65

Info: (312) 827-5600;

http://www.lyricopera.org/secondcity

Run time: 90 minutes

with no intermission

Written by Timothy Sniffen (who co-wrote the “The Second City Guide to the Opera” in 2013, as well as “Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody,” the spot-on satire of American theater classics that enjoyed a successful run at Writers Theatre last season), and directed byAnneliese Toft, the show features Jesse Case as composer, sound designer and music director. But best of all he also plays the role of the wildly narcissistic, obsessive, decidedly kinky Richard Wagner, whose music was much-admired by one Adolf Hitler. Case, who nails the portrayal on every count, is part of an ensemble of eight that blithely confesses it has taken “a beautiful art form and turned it into something absolutely ridiculous.”

Of course as any opera-goer (whether a passionate fan or a skeptic) might tell you, there is something innately “ridiculous” about opera, with its overblown emotions and voices that border on the superhuman. There also is something remarkable about it all. And the work of Wagner (“a nut job and a genius” as Sniffen tells us), embodied both aspects of the art form – one he pushed into a whole new realm.

Tracy Cantin (left) with Sayjal Joshi and Randall Harr in “Longer! Louder! Wagner!” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Tracy Cantin (left) with Sayjal Joshi and Randall Harr in “Longer! Louder! Wagner!” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

“Longer! Louder! Wagner!” is set in motion by way of a program on classical music radio station WFMT, where a scholarly host (Sayjal Joshi) is teamed with a lowbrow commercial radio deejay (Randall Harr). And there is this news: Wagner’s great-grandson, Fred (Tim Ryder), is alive and well and living a happily unexceptional life in the suburb of Schaumburg, where he stages light opera works, including the current production of “Cupcakes.” He lives with his girlfriend, Karen (Alice Stanley Jr.), who is planning to earn her doctorate in Library Science, and he collaborates with a local set designer (Travis Turner) who has mastered the art of small budgets.

When a Wagner scholar tries to goad Fred out of his mediocrity, he resists. But then the director of the Ring Cycle (“Der Ring des Nibelungen”) at the annual Bayreuth Festival — the music festival in Germany conceived by Wagner, and devoted to performances of his operas — suffers a nervous breakdown. Fred is tapped to take over and gradually begins to get into the spirit of things. He even finds his ideal Brunnhilde in Chicago, who works at a Jiffy Lube. Her name is Valerie (Tracy Cantin, a recent alumna of Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center, who not only possesses a spectacular voice, but has the exuberant comic chops for this work, and sets it on fire), and she and Fred grow excited about each other.

Fast forward to Bayreuth, where Morgan (Jonah D. Winston, a marvelous bass with great comic flair, who made his Lyric debut in “The Merry Widow” last season), is to sing the role of Wotan, even though he would far prefer to be in a Disney musical, and where Fred increasingly communes with the spirit of his great-grandfather, whose passion for silk and young girls is revealed, as is his homosexual liaison-of-convenience with his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Along the way there is a deliciously revealing encounter in a cafe that brings together the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the piano virtuoso Franz Liszt and Wagner. There also is a funny riff on the guilt involved in preferring Verdi to Wagner. And there are bits that hint of both “Xanadu” and “The Producers.”

As Wagner aficionados will tell you, everything must end in a great conflagration, and indeed it does. But this is a case where the paroxysms of laughter might just extinguish the flames. So a happy “Gotterdammerung” to you all.

Jesse Case plays Richard Wagner and Travis Turner plays his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria in “Longer! Louder! Wagner!” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Jesse Case plays Richard Wagner and Travis Turner plays his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria in “Longer! Louder! Wagner!” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

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