It has been a few years since singer/actress B.J. Ward began her comical sojourn through the great operatic arias in a series of Sunday brunch performances at Hollywood’s Gardenia cabaret. Under the direction of longtime ally Gordon Hunt, Ward has refined her often hilarious musings on the works of such European stalwarts as Verdi, Puccini, Bizet and Mozart into a seamless interaction of music and comedy that is greatly enhanced by music director/pianist Joseph Thalken, who serves as both accompanist and foil. But what makes this latest “Stand-Up” routine memorable is Ward’s poignant, deeply introspective side trips into the English-language works of Carlisle Floyd, Gian Carlo Menotti and George Gershwin.
Ward possesses a wonderfully malleable vocal instrument but does not present the effortless vocal control and range of a Kathleen Battle or Cecilia Bartoli. Striding about the stage and occasionally into the audience dressed in a black suit and tennis shoes, she exudes an aura of hard work as she tackles Verdi’s challenging “Sempre Libera” (“La Traviata”), the recitative-rich “Si. Mi chiamana Mimi” (“La Boheme”) or Bizet’s zesty “Seguidilla” (“Carmen”).
It is that very effort, however, that sets up her droll between-aria chatter. Collapsing on the floor after the stratospheric “Sempre Libera,” Ward complains, “There is no need for a note to be that high.” Commenting on the tragic social life of Puccini’s Mimi, she informs the audience, “19th-century Paris was a tough dating town.” Later, she sums up Musetta’s self-serving “Quando me ‘n vo’ ” (“La Boheme”) by calling it an “Italian ‘My Way.’ ”
The comedic high point of the evening comes when Ward enlists the aid of Thalken to perform Mozart’s duet, “La ci darem la mano” (“Don Giovanni”). The two exhibit Marx Brothers-like fluidity, timing and zaniness as they alternate on both the vocal and piano duties without missing a beat.
For the first-act closer, Ward demonstrates she is an actress of considerable skill, offering Gian Carlo Menotti’s “To This We’ve Come” (“The Consul”), a deeply moving indictment of the monolithic government bureaucracies that have been set up to thwart immigrants seeking a better life.
In the second act, she continues her beautifully introspective English language musings with Floyd’s tender folk opera aria, “Ain’t It a Pretty Night!” (“Susannah”). Ward quickly gets back on the comedy track when explaining that the opera’s heroine, Susannah, was plagued by the narrow-mindedness of the local clergy. “It just goes to show that evangelists do more than lay people,” she shrugs.
Ward is known for her surprises. Announcing she has added Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” (“Porgy and Bess”) to the program, she launches into the passion-filled aria only to have baritone Michael Smith rise unannounced out of the audience to provide an exquisite rendering of Porgy’s “Bess You Is My Woman Now.”
“Stand-Up Opera” is aided by the simple but mood-enhancing scenery and lighting of Michael Devine and John De Santis, respectively.