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Take These Arias, Please

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TIMES THEATER CRITIC

In “Stand-Up Opera,” B.J. Ward--soprano, actress, voice of Betty Rubble on the new “Flintstones”--teaches you a thing or two. Precisely how and when to emit an attention-grabbing “Brava!” during a performance of “Carmen,” for example.

Ward offers helpful statistics, such as the relative death rate of Puccini heroines (two out of three). And in the evening’s funniest bit, Ward and her exceptional musical director and accompanist, Joseph Thalken, prove why no great, impassioned operas come from Switzerland. Sample lyric of their faux-Swiss aria: “I love you because you’re neutral.”

This well-traveled primer on matters operatic, now at the Tiffany Theatre, is like Ward’s onstage persona: modest, friendly, easygoing. Her patter isn’t always the freshest; some of the jokes carry a thin coating of moss. Yet “Stand-Up Opera” fulfills its populist ambitions. It lets a big voice have its way with some titanic music (and some lesser stuff), while making room for Ward the wiseacre.

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Directed by TV veteran Gordon Hunt, the show leans on established, oft-parodied favorites. Among them are “Musetta’s Waltz” (from Puccini’s “La Boheme”), which Ward calls the Italian “My Way”; “Seguidilla” from Bizet’s “Carmen”; and “Sempre libera” from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which opens Ward’s show. “Stand-Up Opera” also affords the singer a chance at such 20th century works as Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah” and Erich Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt.”

It’s no surprise to see Ward list three years with the Groundlings comedy troupe in her program biography. Comedy frees up Ward’s singing. Her sound, which lacks some delicacy in the upper register, becomes richer and more pleasing when she’s allowed to kid around a little. (At one point Ward goes through an old Phil Silvers routine with accompanist Thalken, as she tutors him in the art of operatic vocal performance.) Act 2, the breezier of the show’s halves, spices the mix with Ward’s rattling “Porgy and Bess” duet, showcasing special guest baritone Michael Smith.

“Stand-Up Opera” is pleasant and classy and musically confident. Ward’s lighthearted between-arias material--the stage version of liner notes--can get predictable. Yet she and Thalken work extremely well together. The show qualifies as an affable parlor entertainment, if 1999 America can accommodate such a concept.

Not to mention parlors in general.

BE THERE

“Stand-Up Opera,” Tiffany Theatre, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends Sept. 12. (310) 289-2999. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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