Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

Once a staple of music tents and operetta societies, THE STUDENT PRINCE received a beautifully sung production at Melody Top as the final produciton of its 1980 season. (GREASE was presented as a post-season offering.) Rarely produced today outside of opera companies, THE STUDENT PRINCE remains popular in countless recordings and an excellent movie version first released in 1954. Jack Gilford received star billing for his comedic role as Lutz, while an expert group of singers was hired to perform Romberg's lush score. Four audio clips from a live recording made at the Top are available below.

Photos from THE STUDENT PRINCE, Aug. 26 – Sept. 7, 1980

The Student Prince 1 The Student Prince 2 The Student Prince 3 The Student Prince 4 The Student Prince 5 The Student Prince 6 The Student Prince 7 The Student Prince 8 The Student Prince 9 The Student Prince 10

The Student Prince at Melody Top

Keith Rice, Sarah Rice and Jack Gilford take their bows after a performance of THE STUDENT PRINCE (1980) at Melody Top. Photo from the collection of Annie Bruskiewitz.

STUDENT PRINCE a study in good theater

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, August 27, 1980

Guy Little's production of THE STUDENT PRINCE provided a serving of utter beauty Tuesday at the Melody Top Theater.

Jack Gilford, of TV commercial, Broadway and burlesque fame, holds the star billing in this enterprise because of his ticket-selling recognition value. Certainly he worked up a smile or two and even a couple of laughs with his vintage shenanigans and cunning tricks.

However, composer Sigmund Romberg and lyricist-author Dorothy V. Donnelly meant their masterpiece to be a serenade to young love, not nostalgic notions.

That's how the audience took the show, too. It's enthusiasm first took flight on the wings of Keith (Karl Franz) Rice's sterling voice – abetted beautifully by Ronald (Dr. Engel) Rogers – and the interest really soared with the flute-like wonder of Sarah (Kathie) Rice's clear soprano.

The Rices – unrelated young talents working together for the first time – enhanced their vocal presentation with just the right quality of youthfulness that made their picture of awakening love believable.

This story of an impossible love between a German prince and a barmaid is set in Heidelberg chiefly to fill the stage with the robust singing of cadets, wafting their beer foam to the tune of perennial hits.

Director Bill Gile has employed a careful eye in giving his corp of handsome students and pleasant barmaids bright, happy patterns, moved along at a sprightly pace.

The more subtle humor needed for the plot is handled well by Woody Romoff as the prime minister and Mary Best as the meddling duchess.

Apparently off on his own and not directly under Gile's control, Gilford (as Lutz) floats in and out to make his own brand of humor with his gentle, fey imagination.

Matthew John Hoffman III has provided the company with a collection of sumptuous costumes and Donald Yap succeeds in blending the efforts of his fine pit orchestra and the equally noteworthy singing corps.

Choreographer Jay Norman, however, has chosen to use surprising restraint. He passes up moment after moment of irresistible music with little more than a passing nod to the dance potentials of the ethnic setting.

The Student Prince at Melody Top

Sarah Rice (Kathie) and Keith Rice (Prince Karl Franz) in a scene from THE STUDENT PRINCE (1980) at Melody Top. Photo from the collection of Annie Bruskiewitz.

Bugs in the theater but not in PRINCE

By Damien Jaques, the Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, August 27, 1980

At first, it appeared there would be a stinging showdown.

Sigmund Romberg's ever-popular operetta, THE STUDENT PRINCE, and the formidable cast the Melody Top had assembled to perform it Tuesday night vs. clouds of rude and nasty mosquitoes. It was a credit to the actors and the merciful ushers who wielded cans of inspect repellent that the bugs lost this opening-night battle.

But then, how could beer-drinking songs, a heart-breaking romance and the best cast on the Melody Top's season lose?

THE STUDENT PRINCE has been performed in Milwaukee many times since it made its debut on Broadway in 1924, but one would have to go a long way back to find better young lovers than Keith Rice, who played the prince, Karl Franz, and Sarah Rice, who was his barmaid girlfriend. (The Rices are not related.)

Keith seems to be perfectly cast for the role. Young and terribly handsome, he is the picture of wholesomeness and responsibility to duty – exactly what you would want from the heir to the throne. He is a fine actor, but it was his singing voice that turned the audience on Tuesday night. It was superb.

Sarah Rice also was the epitome of youthful wholesomeness. Fresh from Broadway's SWEENEY TODD, she treated the opening-night patrons to a Broadway-caliber performance. Her acting was first rate, and her soaring soprano voice must have made all those mosquitoes think they were listening to a beautiful bird.

Dr. Engel was played with much credibility by Ronald Rogers, who was just right as the prince's best friend and counselor. And Rogers, too, displayed a most impressive voice.

The "star" of this production is veteran trouper Jack Gilford, who plays the prince's flaky and finicky valet, Lutz. Gilford, who is making his Melody Top debut, occasionally came close to spreading his nutty-old-man schtick a little too thick, but he resisted the temptation to turn the show into a burlesque, and he gave the briefest and classiest curtain speech in recent memory.

(Webmaster's note: Gilford's curtain speech charmed the crowds when he said that he had not been back to Milwaukee for 39 years, since first appearing at the Riverside Theater with Paul Whiteman's orchestra during the summer of 1941. He told audiences that "You have grown beautifully.")

Unlike some Melody Top productions this season, THE STUDENT PRINCE has strong performances in the secondary roles, too. Everyone from Mary Best's grand duchess and Woody Romoff's prime minister to Ann Arvia's vamping barmaid and David Larson's simple wine steward is effective and believable.

THE STUDENT PRINCE runs through September 7 – and take your can of mosquito spray with you.

The Student Prince at Melody Top

Brad Keating, Keith Rice (Karl Franz), James K. Seibel, Robert Vincent, Jim Fredericks and K. David Short perform "The Drinking Song" from THE STUDENT PRINCE (1980) at Melody Top. The three men with their backs to the camera are Terry Lacy, Richard Rebilas and Ron Relic. Photo from the collection of Annie Bruskiewitz.

The ritual of a "salamander" toast

In THE STUDENT PRINCE, the mellow and melodious operetta, the robust male chorus swing their beer steins skyward in one scene and drink a "salamander" to the hero of the show. This is one of the many authentic touches in THE STUDENT PRICE that render the serene and zestful spirit of the old German university town of Heidelberg, locale of the story. For centuries the "salamander" has been a custom of Heidelberg's student corps – a toast that is both a form of initiation for a young student, and a test of his manliness. Most dictionaries define a salamander as a reptile of the lizard family but say nothing of the German toast. The salamander of the lizard family was fabled in Medieval times to live in and eat fire. Hence, by derivation, a hero, a brave soldier, one who stood up under any stress, became a salamander, a "fire-eater." When students at the university wished to welcome a new undergraduate to their ranks, they drank a "salamander" to him, he joining in the observance of the rite. The ceremony is often conducted in Latin and in accordance with a fixed ritual. The toastmaster announces, "We will now execute the salamander." All rise and, at a signal from the toastmaster, they rub the bottoms of their steins on the table with a circular motion and in unison until the toastmaster cries "Bibete." Then all drink. Next, the steins are brought down and jiggled from side to side creating a "rat-a-tat-tat" noise from the table, then raised and brought down with a simultaneous crash. But there's a catch in it – for the guest. Instead of finding himself honored, he may find himself disgraced by the "salamander." In THE STUDENT PRINCE, when the young Prince Karl Franz is toasted by his fellow students, they hand him a huge tankard, much larger than the steins they drink from. And this is his test of heroism, because the "salamander" may not be sipped. It must be drunk in a single swallow, without pause for breath, gulp or contraction of the swallowing muscles. If the one who is toasted downs his especially big stein-ful of beer with a single gulp, his good standing is confirmed. If he is not able to perform this required task, he is considered a weakling, and therefore undeserving of being toasted, or of toasting others, as a duly, test-proven "fire-eater."

THE STUDENT PRINCE Cast of Characters

Prime Minister Von Mark:Woody Romoff
Dr. Engel:Ronald Rogers
Prince Karl Franz:Keith Rice
Gretchen:Ann Arvia
Ruder:Charles Koehn
Toni:David Larson
Lutz:Jack Gilford
Hubert:Jonathan Freeman
Count Hugo Detlef:Jim Fredericks
Von Asterberg:Robert Vincent
Lucas:K. David Short
Kathie:Sarah Rice
Grand Duchess Anastasia:Mary Best
Princess Margaret:Debra Dominiak
Captain Tarnitz:Jim Fredericks

Students, Secretaries, Girls and Ambassadors: Robert Vincent, Jim Fredericks, James K. Seibel, Ken Ellis, Phil Courington, Terry Lacy, Ron Relic, Richard Rebilas, K. David Short, Brad Keating, Ann Arvia, Mib Bramlette and Laura Soltis.

Conductor: Donald Yap; Strings: Edward Mumm, Ann Norden, Jerome Franke; Reeds: John Hibler, Joseph Aaron, Bonnie Cohen; Brass: Phil Ruektenwald, Jeff Pietrangelo, Ken Howlett; Keyboard: Stephen Bates; Bass: Tom McGirr; Percussion: Roy Schneider.

This page is dedicated to the memory of James R. Riggs, Melody Top's beloved lighting designer and stage manager from 1974-1984. Generous donations from Stacey Riggs, his wife, are enablbing this website to carry on well into the future. Thank you, Jim, for preserving so many wonderful memories that will continue to be celebrated and enjoyed by thousands of brand-new Melody Top fans online.

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