Tom Rowan's The Second Tosca is all about drama—the drama we see onstage when we go to the opera and the drama that we don't see happening backstage in the dressing room. "It's a bunch of egomaniacs jockeying for supremacy," jaded manager Stephen (Carrington Vilmont) tells a young opera groupie. "And that's just the directors and designers." But beneath the drama is a genuine passion for music, and for opera itself. Rowan displays an intimate understanding of the world he writes about, offering a comedic but also serious and respectful look into an industry so intense that everyone, from the cast to the crew, is willing to give his or her life to it—in some instances, literally.
The Ghost of Angelina Rinucci (Eve Gigliotti), a beloved, former Tosca star from opera's golden age who fell to her death onstage at the Opera California house, now haunts the premises, less distraught over losing her life than at never being able to take her final bow. Now, Lisa Duvall (Rachel de Benedet), who scorns her profession's pretentiousness, is stepping in to understudy the Tosca role that Rinucci died playing, on the same stage she died on.
Benedet brings many dimensions to her paradoxical character. Though she is surrounded by adoring people, she always seems lonely—a powerful figure who fills the room with her talent but is known for little else. She's not really a diva, but she knows how to play one onstage. Duvall stands in contrast to the woman she understudies, Gloria Franklin (Vivian Reed), who bursts into a room oozing of importance, snapping her fingers, stomping her feet, thrusting her little white dog at underlings to walk, and letting everyone know a true diva is in the building.
In one of Reed's best monologues, Franklin puts the production's pompous conductor, Aaron Steiner (Mark Light-Orr), in his place for telling her starry-eyed assistant, Darcy (Melissa Picarello), to forget opera and pursue a career in community theater, a critique so stinging the girl actually winces. Darcy runs out of the room in tears, and Franklin charges in like a gun-blazing cowboy, telling her own harrowing back story about a poor young girl facing many obstacles on her road to stardom, and concluding with her thoughts on where Steiner can stick his opinions about a young person's talent.
At first it's unclear whether Franklin will prove to be friend or foe to Duvall, who worships the star as much as the rest of the company does. Nevertheless, Franklin seemed to connect the most with the audience, almost as if she was the devil they know, unlike Duvall, who, in jeans and a tank top, often looked like a misplaced duck in a world of swans. As Franklin, Reed could hardly deliver a monologue without someone from the audience yelling "That's right" or "Hm-mmm."
Rowan's story takes us out of our seats and into this world. When the Ghost of Rinucci sings in her resounding operatic voice, the lights dim and the powerful notes fill your head. In that moment, you're not in an Off Off Broadway theater but in a 4,000-seat opera house.
The set, designed to look like an opera house's backstage, looks gritty and lived in. Even before the characters enter, a great deal of activity appears to have taken place there. There are silk scarves thrown sloppily over hooks, coffee mugs on the makeup counter, long curly wigs plopped atop mannequin heads, and notebooks scattered across the assistant stage manager's workstation.
Like the opera, The Second Tosca is ripe with melodrama, providing juicy subplots involving Duvall's wildcard brother/manager Stephen and the hilariously dorky Juilliard opera groupie Nathaniel (Jeremy Beck), who finds himself being drawn further into his idol's world than he ever could have imagined.
With the show's two-hour, 35-minute running time, it is a credit to director Kevin Newbury's fast pacing that his production never drags or starts to feel long, and it ends with a great note of closure. Ultimately, it's a fun, crowd-pleasing show with special appeal for anyone who's ever been, or wanted to be, backstage at an opera house.