Shhhh. Don't tell the cast of Opera Omaha's "The Mikado."
But stage director Dorothy Danner feels just a little bit sorry for her poor, panting singers.
At a recent rehearsal, Brian-Mark Conover, Kirk Vaughn Robinson and Terry Hodges ran, leaped and executed elaborate hand gestures and footwork while singing "I Am So Proud," eliciting laughs from attending staff.
"Because I have a dance background, I tend to physicalize the comedy," Danner said between staging scenes at Opera Omaha's 19th and Farnam Street offices. "But that fits the rhythm of the piece. You have to bring everything you've learned in modern theater to the incredible wit of this show."
Danner, who is actress Blythe Danner's sister-in-law and actress Gwyneth Paltrow's aunt, has learned plenty about the incomparable wit of Gilbert & Sullivan. The British composers cleverly blended great singing, gentle satire and funny, funny business into their comic operettas.
"The Mikado," playing at the Orpheum on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, has been the most popular of their 14 shows since it opened in London in 1885. In old Japan, thwarted lovers, scheming bureaucrats and giggling schoolgirls take unexpected plot turns amid soaring melodic lines, rhyming patter and lush harmonies.
Danner is known as something of a Gilbert & Sullivan expert in the opera world, said Opera Omaha assistant conductor J. Gawf.
To hear Danner tell it, she accidentally backed into directing from her career as a Broadway dancer in shows such as "Once Upon a Mattress" and Michael Bennett's "Ballroom." She performed on numerous TV variety shows such as Perry Como and Ed Sullivan, as well.
Around 1970, her opera-tenor husband, Harry Danner, was singing in "La Boheme" at Lake George, N.Y. They'd just had a baby, so she decided to take the summer off.
"But in regional opera, everybody wears five hats," Danner said. "So they asked, would I teach just one class, direct a scene here or there."
Until then, she didn't realize her years on Broadway had trained her in how to build a scene, or direct a show. She became known in particular for humorous material: a scene from "La Traviata," "Die Fledermaus," comic ballet.
"I would never have done it on my own," she said. But she learned that directing is problem-solving, figuring out how best to tell a story. And the jobs have kept coming.
Danner now switches with ease among opera, comic operettas and musicals, though each has specialized demands for a director. "The Mikado," she said, needs a certain urgency within the characters for the comedy to work.
"If you make their needs so strong and passionate, then the show goes to another level," Danner said. "Otherwise it's just schtick."
Danner likes pushing the comedic envelope, walking the fine line between going too far and keeping it light, all the while supporting the story and the score.
"There's a great demand on the chorus, too," she said. "They'll have more movement than would be typical as well. But we'll try some sassy new things, see how it works with this cast."
Danner said it's a challenge to find the right talent for operettas. It requires a certain generosity, a lack of cynicism, the ability to open your heart and wear it on your sleeve.
"That's not so easy to find in a cynical world," she said. "It's easier for people to get angry onstage now than open their hearts. And with Gilbert & Sullivan, they also need incredible facility with words, to spin the text and have that rhythm in their bodies."
Though directing often keeps her on the road, Danner enjoys time at home in Englewood, N.J. When there, she said, she often sees her husband's sister, actress Blythe Danner, a Tony winner known for everything from Moliere to "Meet the Parents."
"But I haven't seen Gwyneth (Blythe's Oscar-winning daughter) as much since she married," she said. "She has homes in New York and in London. Her husband (Coldplay frontman Chris Martin) is British, so they're over there a great deal."
It was more fun, she said, when Gwyneth was dating. At family gatherings you never knew when Brad Pitt or Ben Affleck might turn up.
"But Blythe and I go to the park with her grandkids (Apple and Moses) sometimes. And she's very good about taking me to Broadway shows."
Danner's last trip to Omaha was in 2005 to direct "The Threepenny Opera," also for Opera Omaha.
"I had a very nice time," she said. "The people are welcoming. I'm from St. Louis originally, and it's kind of a Midwest hometown feeling."
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