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Space opera
By Chris Helms/ Chronicle Staff
Thursday, March 17, 2005

David Bass may be the only opera librettist whose lyrics inspire performers to get in touch with their inner slugs.
     The latest extravaganza from Bass' North Cambridge Family Opera is "Space Opera," a rollicking riff on a certain well-known science fiction film.
     Perhaps the most show-stopping number in the production, which runs through Sunday at the King Open School, comes as the curtain rises on a cantina scene complete with a cage dancer, aliens of all shapes and sizes and an band worthy of George Lucas.

     "I'm Jabba the Hutt and I look like a giant slug," belted out little Julia Burket at this year's "Space Opera" premiere on Saturday afternoon. Family Opera also performed the show in 1999 and 2000. Her backup singers sported '50s-era tough-guy looks, complete with shoulder tattoos that spell out J-A-B-B-A.
     One focus of the North Cambridge Family Opera is to have many people, young and old, cycle through the roles. For instance, Saturday night's Jabba the Hutt was Ann Marie King, who was Saturday afternoon's Rebel/Alien. Like Burket, she put preparation into her role as Jabba.
     "Deep inside, he's not happy," said King, still in her Rebel garb between shows. "He's part man, part woman. He's a criminal, so it fits that he sings a blues song."
     Hannah Breslau, the King Open third-grader who is scheduled to be Jabba in this Saturday's evening show, put it like this in her cast biography: "She thanks her parents, her brother, Joe, and her two cats, Spunky and Marvin, for encouraging her to be a giant slug."
     Bass, a Norris Street resident, mixes musical genres in the two-act opera. Luke Skywalker, played Saturday by Burket's brother, Nathaniel, introduces himself with a soulful blues lament about life on the desert planet of Tatooine. There are also shades of Wagner. Han Solo, played in the Saturday matinee by Phil Budne of the Cambridge Community Chorus, gets a rock-n-roll song entitled "I'm the Best," appropriate for the pleased-with-himself Solo.
     By turns, "Space Opera" sounds like an intergalactic "Les Miserables," complete with a nod to that musical's signature tune, "Song of Angry Men:"
     "You can even gain a fortune on the products you endorse," sings a chorus of cheerfully evil-doing storm troopers, "if you only knew the power of the Dark Side of the Force."
     The interplay between Darth Vader and his bumbling soldiers is one of the treats of the production.
     "We know you are never kidding," sing Vader's storm troopers. They come across as bumbling incompetents who have to consult "Stormtrooping for Dummies." At one point a storm trooper sings "I'd rather do nothing than do something wrong."
     In a nod to Jewish tradition, the crowd hisses whenever Vader takes the stage. It's a hiss heard in Jewish homes worldwide on the holiday of Purim whenever the villain Haman is mentioned. For the past two years, the North Cambridge Family Opera has performed musical renditions of the story of Purim.
     After the show, the Imperial Sith Lord was unperturbed by the hisses. Frank Walker, a professionally trained baritone, explains that he is used to being typecast.
     "Typical baritone," he said while mingling in the lobby, "always the bad guy."
     He knows that well, because last year he heard the boos when he strode onstage as Haman during Bass' "Springtime for Haman."
     For every singer onstage, there are others who have made scenery, sewn costumes, staffed the refreshments counter at intermission, worked the soundboards and kept the hordes, Jawa and otherwise, in makeup.
     "The passion they all put into it is amazing," said Kathryn Noonan, who is slated to play Princess Leia during this Saturday's evening performance.
     Between shows last Saturday, Bass, a former chemical engineer, stood aside from the backstage maelstrom to reflect on the madness he and his neighbors had wrought.
     "The sense of community that evolved was an unintended consequence," said Bass. "This really is a lot more rewarding than chemical engineering. This affects people in a very different way."
      Contact Chris Helms atchelms@cnc.com.
     Three shows remain: Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
     King Open School, 850 Cambridge St.
     Tickets: $5 for children, $10 for adults, $25 for a family of four
     More information: 617-492-4095 or www.familyopera.com

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After reading 'Stormtrooping for Dummies,' the battalion is ready for action. (Christine Hochkeppel photo)
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