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Offenbach Operetta Songbird Gets a New and Snappy 1920’s New Orleans Jazz Treatment with Superstar Isabel Leonard

Offenbach Operetta Songbird Gets a New and Snappy 1920’s New Orleans Jazz Treatment with Superstar Isabel Leonard

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Jordan Wright
March 15, 2024
Special to The Zebra

A scene from Songbird (Photo/Scott Suchman)

If you tell me Isabel Leonard is starring in a modern-day rendition of the well-loved, classical Offenbach operetta, “La Périchole” (1868), I would sell my soul to see it – especially since it’s set in the 1920’s Prohibition Era in New Orleans when “Hot Jazz” was king. Think Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and the Dixieland Jazz bands of that force de la nature of American music. NOLA, as we now call it, became a musical polyglot of Afro-Caribbean, Marching Band beats, Spanish Tango influences, Ragtime syncopation, dusky Blues, Vaudevillian razzmatazz, improvisational Scat, and throbbing Latin rhythms bursting forth from a port city credited with the birth of American Jazz.

Conductor, Arranger and Orchestrator, James Lowe, was tasked with melding these divergent yet harmonious rhythms and dovetailing them into Songbird, an opera that uses Franglais in a nod to Offenbach’s French ancestry. Don’t worry there are projected surtitles when the actors switch to French. Instruments of the period, including a vintage drum set from the 1920’s, create the perfect sound Lowe uses to evoke the period when the Stomp, the Charleston and the Black Bottom were just coming of age.

Isabel Leonard (Songbird) and Ramin Karimloo (Piquillo) (Photo/Scott Suchman)

The sassy, spunky, risque comedic action takes place in a speakeasy called Café des Muses and stars a fabulous Vaudeville duo – the starving artists, Songbird (Isabel Leonard) and her amour Piquillo (Ramin Karimloo). The villain is the mayor of the New Orleans, the vainglorious Don Andrès (Edward Nelson) who falls madly in love with Songbird but wants her to be his mistress not his wife. Along with his cohorts, Don Pedro (Jonathan Patton) and Panatellas (tenor and funny as hell natural comedian Sahel Salam), he conspires to marry her off to Piquillo so that he can enjoy her in a carnal way with no strings attached.  With “tunes and booze and no taboos” this splashy production has it all including staggering drunk revelers.

One of the opening lines is delivered by Don Andrés who crows, “I could stand in the middle of Bourbon Street and the President would put me in his Cabinet!” And with that, the slapstick, pratfalls, tap dances and upside-downness begins to click. Add a soupçon of Gilbert and Sullivan panto and shades of the artsy bohemian life and we’re in Gay Paree. There is even a high-kicking Can Can at the bar!

Edward Nelson as Don Andrés (Photo/Scott Suchman)

Premiering at New York’s Glimmerglass festival in 2021, shelved during the pandemic and pared down to one act, the adaption is by Eric Sean FogelJames Lowe and Kelley Rourke who wrote the English lyrics and book.

Believe me when I tell you, the triple Grammy Award-winning mezzo soprano, Isabel Leonard will steal your heart. Her captivating mezzo-soprano range is perfectly suited to this snappy score and her acting chops prove that she can tailor her style to whatever is thrown her way. Furthermore, she plays the gamine as delightfully as Audrey Hepburn. And Karimloo, who is an award-winning Broadway musical star, will wow you with his song styling as well as his acting and comedic chops. Insider scoop: He has never studied voice, can’t read music (He asks for all his scores to be sent via the DAW GarageBand software.), and never in his life saw an opera before he was cast in this one. I love this so much!

Ramin Karimloo (Piquillo), Jonathan Patton (Don Pedro), and Sahel Salam (Panatellas) (Photo/Scott Suchman)

Deliciously naughty and wildly colorful with Mardi Gras costumes, zoot suits and spats, beaded flapper dresses and silky lingerie, this oh-so-clever interpretation will charm and delight. I know because the audience lost their collective minds – cheering at every song and roaring at every bit of farce. They were just as wild as the performers in their enthusiasm.

Highly recommended!!!!!

With Teresa Perrotta as Guadalena, Kresley Figueroa as Berginella, Cecelia McKinley as Mastrilla, Taylor-Alexis DuPont as Celeste, Jonathan Pierce Rhodes as A Priest, Justin Burgess as A Mobster/The Guide and Jo Ann Daugherty as Pianist.

Original Co-Director Francesca Zambello; Original Costume Designer Christelle Matou; Costume Designers Marsha LeBoeuf and Timm Burrow; Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel; Sound Designer Mark Rivet.

Remaining performances on March 17th, 20th and 23rd at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets and information call the box office at 202 467-4600 or visit

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