ROBERT BRUCE SMITH: Sousa musical comedy packs laughs, great tunes

TUPELO – Well, see, there was this new Spanish viceroy in Old Peru.
His name was Don Errico Madigua (Ma-DEE-gua). He was a nice guy but a complete wuss – hated making decisions, etc. He was also rather cowardly, and when he heard some angry insurgents were coming to brutally overthrow him – sound familiar? – he disguised himself as the mythical Peruvian freedom-fighter El Capitan and fled his palace. Oh, and he “heroically” left his wife and beautiful daughter with the impression he had been kidnapped by those bloodthirsty rebels!
It’s on this slender plot – with many a romantic, comedic and musical twist and turn – that John Philip Sousa’s 1896 comic operetta “El Capitan” is built. As performed Saturday night by the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra, Mississippi State University Chorus and several very talented soloists, Sousa’s masterpiece proved once again that it’s lost none of its musical sparkle and uproarious humor.
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was a remarkable man, musician and genuine American success story. Born in Washington, DC, he was a musical prodigy who first rose to national fame as conductor of the prestigious United States Marine Band, proudly called “The President’s Own.” By 1892, Sousa was known far and wide as “The American March King” for the 136 stirring and beautifully crafted concert marches he wrote in total (including, of course, his immortal “Stars and Stripes Forever.”)
In that same year Sousa rocketed to international celebrity when he left the Marines and struck out with his own magnificent and glittering ensemble, the Sousa Band. During the next 40 years he performed 15,623 concerts before presidents, popes, crowned heads and vastly admiring crowds all over the world. He also wrote for the musical stage.
Sousa’s first attempts at operetta weren’t successful, but in 1896 he hit the big time with “El Capitan.” It was funny – even discretely ribald – and its bubbling, faintly martial music perfectly suited America’s confident turn-of-the-century mood. “El Capitan” overflows with waltzes, sentimental ballads, drinking songs, patter songs, screwball dialogue, slapstick comedy and, naturally, the famous “El Capitan” march.
Having enjoyably directed Sousa’s zany but demanding concoction with the Ohio Light Opera last year, TSO music director Steven Byess proposed teaming up with MSU Chorus director Bruce Lesley for a Mississippi encore. And so it was that about 160 symphonic instrumentalists, comedic actor-singers and MSU choristers mounted the Civic Auditorium stage last Saturday.
One of “El Capitan’s” chief delights is its ever-simmering choral commentary, with 80 choreographed chorus members rhythmically cheering, jeering, laughing, moaning and irreverently mirroring the principals’ witty physical gestures.
Meanwhile, up front, the soloists were having a wonderful time. Star of the show was Nicholas Wuehrmann as the “fearless” El Capitan. He swished, he swashed, he pranced and he danced, all in fine voice and with the greatest madcap effect. Other cast members included Alta Dantzler as El Capitan’s domineering wife; Nancy Maria Balach as Isabel, his winsome daughter; Tupelo’s own Monica Roden Spencer as Estrelda, his would-be lover; and Anthony Maida as his comically unwilling servant.
Male love interest was ably provided by tenor Drake Dantzler (for Isabel) and by Michael Hix (for Estrelda). Richard McCoy sang the role of Cazarro, El Capitan’s rival for political power.
Byess beautifully adapted the operetta for local performance. At one point, while petulantly demanding a guitar, El Capitan hisses to the audience, “SURELY there must be a guitar in Tupelo…” He then gyrates into a wonderfully wacky imitation of you-know-who.
In our era of falling tyrants, “El Capitan” proved once again that art and good humor are indeed the most truly precious coin of all possible realms!

Robert Bruce Smith