It’s been a century since composer Victor Herbert (1859–1924) was the king of New York’s musical theater, and while his tunes aren’t exactly forgotten, the 40-odd shows in which they were sung have mostly been gathering dust since World War II. But as sometimes happens when you dust off great-grandma’s old furniture up in the attic, you can find pieces that are still attractive today to those with a taste for antiques.
Nobody would pretend that Herbert was the wisest or most farsighted king the musical theater ever had. Romantic operetta was his métier, and he stuck to it, pouring his lush waltzes, marches, and ballads over standard-make librettos that exploited variants of all the standard stories, interrupted, not always justifiably, by seizures of spectacle or smidgens of topical comedy. Gilbert and Sullivan were the model, but neither their bittersweet sense of fun nor their steel-like unity of structure ever quite made it into Herbertland, where sugary sentiment can drown the story, from which your attention is often distracted by the audible creaking of the plot. Still, there’s often sumptuous fun to be had in a Herbert operetta, just as there’s splendid workmanship in the scalloped trim of your great-grandma’s mahogany sideboard.
Mademoiselle Modiste (1905), an amusing piece of piffle about a pert hat shop girl with vocal talents, her military lover (whose snobby rich uncle of course won’t sanction their marriage), and the meddling American millionaire who makes the little milliner a superdiva, has one of Herbert’s best scores, and one of his sometime partner Henry Blossom’s most easily bearable books (though Blossom’s lyrics alternate good comedy with inept, Tim Rice–style false rhymes). Musicals Tonight!’s staged concert version, sensibly cast with strong, well-trained voices, bustles amiably through the Herbertian fluff. Heather Parcells, as the heroine, tackles the role’s long cascades of coloratura with ease, while Leila Martin handily steals scenes as the scheming hat shop owner. Shoot the sherbet to me, Herbert.