Photo: Brian E Long
Immersive productions have become a thing within opera, with performances being held in places such as the Catacombs in Green-Wood Cemetery in New York and a comedy club turned speakeasy on the city’s Lower East Side. And the latter is where a jazz opera, “Fizz and Ginger,” composed by Whitney George to a libretto by Bea Goodwin, premiered on June 19, 2023, at the New York Comedy Club.
“Fizz & Ginger” takes the audience on a journey into the raucous underground nightlife of 1920s New York City and pays tribute to Lois Long, also known as Lipstick, a writer who wrote nightlife reviews for The New Yorker during the roaring decade. In her quest for an intriguing story, Lipstick ventures into The Crossroads, a speakeasy inhabited by a diverse group of people. Each of the character’s narratives could stand on their own, but “Fizz” brings them all together—in wrecking-ball style—when she sneaks her way inside a speakeasy named The Crossroads, where she meets the people whose lives she could destroy should she wield her pen irresponsibly.
Characters Drawn from Real Life
Sarah Goldrainer made her operatic debut as Lipstick, the daughter of a preacher who becomes a consummate flapper, bouncing from party to party to provide readers of The New Yorker with nightlife reviews.
Shane Brown sings Benny, a rumrunner, and master of ceremonies at The Crossroads. As the son of immigrant parents, he understands the pain of discrimination. Benny always keeps his options open; he’s a go-getter, and despite his illegal profession, inside, there’s a kind and caring guy.
Nellie, played by MaKayla McDonald, is a talented and sophisticated Black writer. Goodwin drew inspiration for the character from the nurse, librarian, and novelist Nella Larsen, an influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance. As an African American woman, Nellie faces discrimination and prejudice, including from Lipstick herself. However, Benny respects her, calling her “brilliant.”
Contralto Allison Gish sang the role of Marjorie, an alcoholic war widow who embarks on a challenging journey to rebuild her life and conquer her addiction. Living in a tenement with her son, she yearns for a brighter future. Benny shares a connection with Marjorie’s late husband, who played a significant role in Benny’s own history by constructing his first pushcart.
Bruce, played by Francisco Corredor, is an openly queer bohemian who draws inspiration from the trailblazing Richard Bruce Nugent. In the underground scene, Bruce finds solace and the freedom to embrace his true self. Benny warns Lipstick to tread cautiously around Bruce, describing him as a “tough nut to crack.” The truth, however, is that Bruce is Benny’s lover.
Amid the characters’ lives at The Crossroads, Old Tom Bullock, played by Kyle Oliver, is the perceptive bartender who acts as an observer and a voice of reason. Inspired by Tom Bullock, Old Tom provides wisdom and guidance to this diverse group, serving as a steady presence amidst the chaos and conflicts they face.
Throughout her interactions with the other characters, Lipstick confronts the harsh realities of racism, homophobia, and the potential destructive power of the written word. The opera reaches its climax as Lipstick faces a moral dilemma: whether to pen a review that could shatter lives or choose restraint.
Read through the list of characters again. There’s a common denominator, and it’s Benny. While the focus of the narrative is on Lipstick, the hero of the story is him. Very clever. With Benny as the hero, Lipstick becomes the anti-hero, and her behavior places her solidly in that role.
An Ethically Challenged Reporter
The story kicks off with Benny on stage, playing host for the evening. Enter Lipstick, who followed Benny into the speakeasy. She’s unfamiliar with the party’s attendees, and Benny is reluctant to provide her with a who’s who. He doesn’t want Lipstick poking her nose around The Crossroads. In particular, he advises Lipstick to steer clear of Bruce, saying, “he’s a tough nut to crack.”
Lipstick’s first target is at the bar, Marjorie, who desperately struggles to maintain sobriety to avoid losing custody of her son. As the saying goes; hang around a barber shop, and you’ll end up with a haircut. Likewise, with bars with drinking.
That raises a question: Why is Marjorie there in the first place if she’s attempting to get sober?
The answer lies in her story. With her husband dead, Marjorie has no one else in her life but her son, Old Tom, and Benny, who live in the same tenement as Marjorie. She develops a closeness with the two men—pseudo-husbands—and they look out for her. With this in mind, it makes perfect sense why she’d be at The Crossroads.
Continuing with the story, Lipstick unintentionally sabotages Marjorie’s sobriety by offering her shots. Old Tom tries to stop her from tempting Marjorie but can’t. While he certainly could’ve refused to pour more shots, he doesn’t. It’s not up to him to keep her sober. It is only when Old Tom informs Lipstick that Marjorie has been trying to quit drinking that her conscience is pricked momentarily.
Having struck out with Marjorie, Lipstick moves on to Nellie. Lipstick, when she discovers Nellie writes for a Harlem magazine called “The Messenger,” is shocked that magazines even exist in Harlem. Nellie informs her there are actually six publications. Lipstick dismisses Nellie as a writer because of her race.
Next, Lipstick uncovers Benny and Bruce’s love for each other, terrifying Benny. Should she out them, two lives will be destroyed.
The Crossroads is raided, and although Benny bribes the police officer, he cannot prevent him from targeting Marjorie, who is arrested and, in a devastating blow, loses custody of her son.
Lipstick has lots of fodder for a juicy story, but does she write it?
Goodwin, who also served as the show’s director, creatively left that for the audience to discover.
On each table sat a tri-folded piece of paper labeled “Lipstick’s Review” with the instruction “Do Not Open Until Last Call.”
The audience reads Lipstick’s review to discover the answer: Did she or did she not ruin the lives of those at the party?
The creative team excelled at putting together a truly immersive experience. A password is needed to enter the venue. The cocktail menu features popular drinks from the 1920s, including “The Lipstick,” a concoction created by socialite Barney Gallant and Long’s signature drink.
As flappers roam and dance to Whitney George’s exquisite compositions, the cast members seamlessly integrate into the crowd. Unbeknownst to this reviewer, my seatmate was Izzy, the prohibition-unit cop. Out of the blue, he sprung from his chair, knocking it to the floor, and announced the raid. With such surprises, Goodwin introduced an element of unpredictability, leaving the audience questioning whether the person sitting next to them is a genuine audience member or part of the show.
Throw in candlelit round tables, and suddenly, you’re in the Jazz Age.
Whitney George: A Versatile Composer and Conductor
When we listen to the music of the 1920s, we hear a rudimentary recording laid down on vinyl so thick you could use the records as frisbees. If you’re lucky enough to own or know someone with a Victor or Victrola, you wind it up, place a very large steel needle on the record, and listen to history. Sometimes, it’s difficult to remember that the music we hear is a far cry from what it actually sounded like.
Whitney George recreated the genuine sound for the audience. Listening to the score allowed the audience to experience the music as it was heard by those who lived during that era. Instruments then sounded just like today’s. George’s compositions remained faithful to the musical style of the time, maintaining authenticity throughout the performance and never “breaking character,” so to speak.
As a conductor, she’s wonderful to watch. Her eyes are everywhere, she knows every line, and she keeps the musicians of The Curiosity Cabinet and the vocalists tight as hell. George deserves the highest praise for her score, her musicianship, and her leadership.
The cast of “Fizz and Ginger” all gave excellent performances.
Allison Gish, who’s as comfortable singing Baroque repertoire as she is the blues, gave a heart-wrenching performance. Her piercing scream in Act two and her tears over losing her son were very moving.
Kyle Oliver’s turn as Old Tom was incredibly convincing. In a conversation with Goodwin, post-show, she revealed Oliver would practice his bartending skills at home, and it paid off. You’d think he previously held the job in real life. Vocally, his voice was thunderous.
MaKayla McDonald had an excellent turn as Nellie. Not only was her voice beautiful, but her imbuing Nellie with spunkiness and self-confidence also revealed that Nellie saw herself as an empowered individual and confident in her craft as a journalist–as well as far more ethical and serious than Lipstick.
Shane Brown’s Benny was a rum runner with a heart of gold. As a former baritone turned tenor, he could hit the high and low notes of George’s score with his impressive range.
The bohemian Bruce, sung by Francisco Corredor, was a ball of energy and a dancing fiend. In his love duet with Benny, he downplayed the flamboyance of the character and displayed a palpable vulnerability.
Last, but certainly not least, was Goldrainer as Lipstick. At first, she plays a detestable person. But after getting socked in the face by Izzy when he attempts to punch Nellie, Goldrainer pivoted to playing a more introspective character, signaling her metamorphosis. Her ability to switch from anti-hero to hero seamlessly was impressive.
Attilio Rigotti of Glitch Productions created the gorgeous speakeasy scenery, with the environment a huge part of the immersive experience.
Open Question: Did She or Didn’t She?
So… What did Lipstick write in her review? Go and find out. Let’s leave it at not all operas have tragic endings.
George and Goodwin hit another one out of the park with “Fizz and Ginger,” musically and dramatically as they immersed the audience in a memorable evening at a speakeasy.
“Fizz and Ginger” continues its run at The New York Comedy Club on June 25 and 26, 2023, and is produced in cooperation with Fresh Squeezed Opera and The Curiosity Cabinet.
A VIP Pass gets you pre-show access to interact with the cast of characters.