The word Opera might go hand in hand with Grandiose. It’s lavish, it’s colossal, the magnitude of the production design matched only by the level of drama onstage. So when you strip all of that away, what’s left? If your answer is ‘really fantastic music’ then Dress Rehearsal is definitely the show for you.

This new production by A.J. Evans labels itself as ‘A Play with Opera,’ which seems fair. The singing is hardly the central focus, but the way it’s used to tell our characters’ stories intertwines the narrative very well. Set backstage in a dingy London Pub Theatre we have the Overtones, a travelling troupe of operatic singers, led by Tony Baker’s Lionel. Amongst the group we have Steph (Alexandra Cowell), a performer who’s used to putting others in front of herself, Kit (Luke Farrugia) an excellent showman but he knows it, and Bella (Amanda Wagg) the prima donna who jostles with Kit for the limelight. In a quirk of storytelling we also revisit Steph’s past, where she is played by Chiara Vinci, and track her relationship with boyfriend and stand up comic Micky (James Richards).

The best parts are unquestionably the musical numbers. In unison, The Overtones have such a beautiful, rich sound that they match anything from ENO, but like any good choral singing you can still pick them out individually. This shows most in their opening number ‘The Brindisi’ which rockets you out from your seat with sheer power. Every performance is a hit, but I have to single out two: Rossini’s ‘Largo al Factorum’ performed by Farrugia with exceptional skill and timing, and our closing number ‘Porgi Amor’ by Mozart, and sung brilliantly by Cowell – how she can make a song sound so warm yet so sad is beyond me. And if we’re singling out numbers, let me throw a quick shoutout to Karen Newby’s accompanist who performs a hilariously middle class version of ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ from Fame! I don’t know what it’s doing there and I don’t care, it’s so wonderful.

Baker makes for a splendid Lionel, all pomp and merriment, using his deep and calming baritone to put you at ease. Wagg and Farrugia apply themselves admirably as the bickering luvvies, and both Cowell and Vinci bring their own nuances to Steph in a way that makes her tremendously likeable. The only minor key (sorry) is that of Richards – his performance is far too overblown, especially towards the end, for us to have any sympathy with him at all.

In many ways the most damaging part of this production is the script. Evans does manage to take a great many characters and give them a satisfying arc in an hour and a half, particularly Kit and Bella who at the end leave their relationship on a perfect note, but he does this at the cost of developing his protagonist. Steph sadly isn’t an interesting character. Ultimately, not enough time in the script is spent on her. A brief monologue at the end comes so out of nowhere it stretches her credibility. Evans can’t seem to keep us focused on the right things at the right time. It doesn’t help that the script threatens to collapse under the weight of its cliches – Hollywood agent in the audience? Check. Flash in the pan celebrity becomes washed up? Check. “I don’t know who you are anymore!” CHECK.

But there are little gems in there too. I love the use of AJ MacGillivray as The Young Tramp, who is gifted time to preach his knowledge of constellations. Lionel also gets a little moment to himself, in a very touching scene about his career. “Isn’t it strange how our whole lives can be decided by fate” he ponders, in a line that tells us just as much about this profession than anything else in the play.

Let’s quickly talk design. How can a smaller scale opera production match up? Surprisingly well it would seem – this is one of the most visually impressive sets I have seen for a space this size. The detail is great, even down to the little markings on the pub chalkboard, and the use of lighting is actually quite superb. This show is a great example for use of colour onstage. It’s the design equivalent of perfect harmony.

Dress Rehearsal is the perfect introduction to opera. The relaxed, informal approach, matched with out of this world singing is exactly what you need for all converts. The story could do with a tightening but the performances and music shine through – you almost wish the whole performance could be sung. Now, isn’t there a word for that…

 

Dress Rehearsal is playing the OSO Community Arts Centre until 20 February 2016. For more information and tickets visit www.osoarts.org.uk