As the playhouse winds down a less than distinguished season, a Paper Mill tradition has been reinstated with its ninth production of “The Student Prince.” First staged here in 1944, the 75-year-old operetta was most recently revived in 1979, featuring the late Allan Jones in the role of Dr. Engel. The new mounting by artistic director Robert Johanson is a sumptuous production, visually stunning and sung by lustrous voices.
Sigmund Romberg’s lilting melodies still manage to induce frequent sighs and smiles from patrons. Offering unabashed romanticism, the operetta form never needed much in the way of plot. Here, a young prince falls in love with an innkeeper’s daughter and is initiated into the college student corps. When the monarch dies, the prince is expected to marry into royalty. The emotional fervor of the tale is carried by its music rather than the stodgy narrative. The abundance of irresistible songs includes “Serenade,” “Deep in My Heart” and the frothy and rousing “Drinking Song.”
Brandon Jovanovich plays Karl-Franz, the sheltered prince, and he cuts a properly boyish, handsome and appealing figure. His singing is impressively lyrical and bold. Christiane Noll is a fetching and perky barmaid, and her lovely voice rings clear and true. They make an engaging couple, and there is already buzz about teaming them again.
One of the great pleasures of the current revival is the versatile supporting cast, which features a trio of notable veteran actors from stage, screen and opera. As the befuddled old wine steward, hopelessly misplaced in a beer garden, Eddie Bracken displays his ageless mastery of the double take. Also on hand is Jane Connell as the Grand Duchess, and she turns dithery regalness into a comic art. Legendary operatic basso Jerome Hines, whose voice still resounds with rich dark tonal depths, brings dignity to the role of the count’s aged tutor and companion. A warm nostalgic glow fills the air when the former Met Opera star sings the reflective “Golden Days.”
Comic relief of a much broader nature is provided by Bill Bateman as a pompous valet and Bill Bowers as his bumbling assistant. These are typical operetta clowns locked in vintage jests, and it appears that Johanson, with good reason, has clipped the silly high junks to a minimum. Jaunty humor is also provided by the diminutive Susan Speidel, who lifts her tankard high and belts a toast with the boisterous young students.
Johanson has always displayed a special talent for staging the classic operettas. His previous productions of Romberg’s “The Desert Song” and “New Moon” and Lehar’s “Merry Widow” — all of which were reproduced for the New York City Opera — remain Paper Mill milestones. Sadly, after 15 years, Johanson has submitted his resignation — effective at the end of the current season — citing a contract dispute and differences over artistic control.
A sprawling cast of 40 includes a robust chorus of virile handsome lads and winsome sets lassies. In Paper Mill tradition, the and costumes are resplendent. Handsomely crafted palatial drawing rooms, a stately ballroom topped with crystal chandeliers and a flowery beer garden drip with the lushness one has come to expect from designer Michael Anania.