Tuesday October 23 5:41 am

Spotlighting events along the south shore of Lake Michigan

"Elizabeth Cree" - Review by Jeffrey Leibham

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This production marks the first time that Chicago has been able to hear the music of Kevin Puts, the highly regarded and heavily awarded composer, as well as Mark Campbell, who wrote the libretto for "Elizabeth Cree." This duo was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music for their combined efforts on the opera "Silent Night."

"Elizabeth Cree," which is based on noted historian and biographer Peter Ackroyd's novel "The Trial of Elizabeth Cree," opens with a prologue set in London's Camberwell Prison in April of 1881. Elizabeth Cree (Katherine Pracht) is hanged for the murder of her husband, John Cree (Christopher Burchett). Over the course of the next 29 scenes, presented in a non-linear narrative format, we witness Elizabeth's journey from a young impoverished woman living with her abusive mother in a squalid flat in Lambeth Marsh to her subsequent rise to British music hall starlet, wooed by sensitive playwright and critic John Cree whom she later marries only to be put on trial for his murder by poisoning.

Into the mix is a series of grisly murders that are occurring throughout London in a Jack the Ripper style as well as some rather macabre journal entries which come to light once John Cree's diary is discovered by Inspector Kildare (Levi Hernandez). The action moves swiftly along (this is billed as a "thriller" after all), and it is all relentlessly driven by Puts' muscular and propulsive score. Puts does find quieter moments to balance all of the mayhem, most notably in arias delivered by John Cree and Dan Leno (Richard Troxell), who is the leader of the music hall troupe that Elizabeth eventually joins. Incidentally, Dan Leno was a well-known comic actor in Victorian London. Other historic personalities who make an appearance include Karl Marx (Zacharias Niedzwiecki) and novelist George Gissing (Samuel Weiser).

Anchoring this entire production is mega-mezzo Pracht. Her Elizabeth shows flashes of both youthful and innocent glee upon her arrival at the music hall, the first time that she has been away from her domineering mother and out in the world to see its endless possibilities. Elizabeth spent a near fortune, for her, to purchase a ticket to be able to see Dan Leno and his associates perform. Watch the sheer joy that plays across Pracht's face during this early scene. She also is very good as the reserved, non-doting wife to John who becomes more cold and calculating as the story progresses. Her swagger as a male dandy (Elizabeth quickly tired of the rigid confines of the role of feminine showgirl and often appeared dressed in men's attire) is reminiscent of the title character in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

Burchett's expressive baritone is perfect for the role of John Cree. He is not only menacing but also creates a complex character of a mercurial and merely misunderstood man. The most demanding role is beautifully handled by Troxell as Dan Leno. Showing wondrous dexterity in many music hall skits that require him to play female characters, Troxell also brings gravity to the evening's conclusion. What utter fun both Pracht and Troxell seem to be having in a musical number that almost seems to be an homage to that infamous Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Impressive and very much in-demand conductor Geoffrey McDonald does wonders with pacing and creating strong, suspenseful moments on stage. His orchestra may be limited in size but produces ample sound whether in reflective passages or spine-chilling slasher sprees.

Tony Award-winner David Zinn has created a clean and utilitarian set comprised of a Victorian wallpapered box which morphs into the rowdy environs of a music hall or the sedate calm of the Reading Room at the British Museum. Zinn is also responsible for the magnificent costumes which range from dark and thick velvet gowns in indigo hues to the bright and canary yellow Harlequin suit worn by Dan Leno and all of the marvelous other costumes sported by the London acting troupe.

Lighting designer Alexander Nichols varies his palette perfectly. Dim, gas-lit parlor scenes give way to John Cree writing by candle light at his desk in solitude to the blazing and garish lights of the music hall itself. Nichols also designed the projections which illustrate, in somewhat graphic detail, the accounts of the multiple murders. This is all directed seamlessly by David Schweizer, who never lets up until the nudge, nudge, wink, wink, jokes on you ending.

Chicago Opera Theater’s production of “Elizabeth Cree” has closed. Next up for Chicago Opera Theatre, a double bill of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Il Pagmalione” and “Rita”, running April 14th, 20th and 22nd, at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Tickets range from $45-$145. FYI (312) 704-8414 or www.chicagooperatheater.org.