Youthful ‘La Boheme’ wins over audience


The “La Boheme” at the Ahmanson Theater is meant for the operatically challenged. Although it adheres almost religiously to the opera written by Puccini, with basically the same libretto sung in Italian, there are differences. It is being produced in a theater rather than an opera house, and the singers have been chosen to fit the roles they play. Here, we have a handsome Rodolfo with a good voice instead of a paunchy Pavarotti with a great voice. Originally set in the mid-1800s, the setting has been moved up to 1957, allowing for witty, updated supertitles.

It all adds up to an entertaining evening of wonderful music, with all the trimmings that make opera grand. The man behind the idea that opera can be made more accessible is Baz Lurhmann, responsible for the movies “Moulin Rouge” and “Strictly Ballroom.” Lurhmann pulls out all the stops, transforming the Ahmanson into a Bohemian corner of Paris. The sets are lavish, the costumes are eye-popping and the supernumeraries are plentiful.

To make the occasion seem more like an opera night, ticket buyers (and celebrity guests) were asked to wear formal attire at the opening. Luhrmann, wearing a tuxedo with the shirttails hanging down in front, was on hand to greet admirers, along with this wife, designer Catherine Martin.

Opera aficionados may wonder why bother with a Broadway “Boheme,” but for those who never attend the opera or are intimidated by the genre, this can be a revelation. The story works well with its romantic alliances, its kooky friends (possible sitcom?) and its snubbing of the conventions. The cast members are all attractive and operatically trained.

The direction by Luhrmann is outstanding, as he captures every nuance of the story in subtle and not so subtle ways. The four impoverished artists in the first scene engage in youthful horseplay, which is delightfully original. The meeting of the poet Rodolfo and tubercular Mimi is played out charmingly on the rooftop garret. The theater is then magically transformed into Montmartre with lights extending into the theater’s upper areas. This is a spectacular set as the friends gather at the Cafe Momus. The stage is a sea of humanity-families, young children, venders, prostitutes. French soldiers make their traditional march through the square. The scene changes are made without the use of curtains and the stagehands richly earned applause.

The opening night’s cast consisted of David Miller, a handsome Rodolfo with a very fine tenor voice, Kelly Kaduce as the doomed Mimi, Chloe Wright as the flirtatious Musetta and Ben Davis as the painter, Marcello. The others on opening night were Daniel Okulitch, the musician and Daniel C. Webb, philosopher. (Others share the parts during the course of the run.) The small orchestra performed handsomely under Constantine Kitsopoulos.

Catherine Martin, credited with the outstanding production, was assisted by Prisque Salvi on scene design and Angus Strathis for costumes.

“La Boheme” is playing through March 7. If it doesn’t make an opera lover out of non-believers, nothing will.