Monday, December 3, 2007

Savoyard Specialty Acts

As many readers know, the Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire holds a very special place in my heart. Having grown up on the D'Oyly Carte's recordings of these operettas, I've developed an inordinate amount of respect for the wit, charm and musical intelligence which went into their creation. And with good reason. All too often, I witness the sorry spectacle of directors mangling these operettas because they (a) don't understand how to deal with the genre, (b) don't have enough faith in the theatricality of these works and (c) don't trust the audience's intelligence. The results (especially in the case of Brian McDonald's productions at Canada's Stratford Shakespearean Festival) are usually appalling.

Therefore, I can't begin to tell you what a joy it was for me to experience, within three days' time, two highly stylized productions of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas which, despite their obviously strong directorial concepts, remained faithful to the composer's and lyricist's intentions. The question of stylization is of paramount importance here because, although the San Francisco Lamplighters' version of Iolanthe was quite traditionally conceived, the Los Angeles Music Center Opera's production of The Mikado took some pretty wild jags away from the usual images associated with that operetta.

But that was okay for, in each case, the dramatic decisions made were wholly justifiable and each production turned out to be tremendously entertaining. The fact that these two productions were presented by California-based arts organizations offers me renewed hope that Gilbert & Sullivan's operettas will continue to be treated with love and respect in the Golden State.


Though rarely performed these days, Iolanthe contains some of Sir Arthur Sullivan's most beautiful music. The story of Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd who is half-man and half-fairy and his problems in marrying Phyllis, a ward of the Lord Chancellor -- although more than a hundred years old -- retains much of its piercing wit. Gilbert's plot (in which Strephon's marriage is facilitated by the supernatural intervention of his mother, Iolanthe, and her fairy colleagues) also pokes great fun at the incompetence of Britain's members of Parliament, Victorian standards of primness and, occasionally, the operetta art form itself.

Of course, lines like, "We are dainty little fairies ever singing, ever dancing," or "You're dealing with an influential fairy," always get an easy laugh from the gay members of an audience attending any performance of Iolanthe. But, when taken in the more traditional context of Victorian England's vision of fairyland, this G&S operetta becomes an exceptionally charming piece of musical theatre.

The performance I attended was bolstered immensely by the presence of Rick Williams' feisty Lord Chancellor (this loyal Lamplighter continues to gain strength in G&S patter roles) and contralto Marcia Hunt scored strongly with her corpulently coercive Queen of the Fairies. Charles Andrew Gravenhorst was an appealingly boyish Strephon; Kay Kleinerman acted appropriately peevish as his bride-to-be, Phyllis. Bill Neil suffered some pitch problems during Private Willis's solo and, no doubt because of their voluminous costumes, the male chorus of Dukes, Marquises, Earls, Viscounts and Barons seemed a bit cramped on the tiny stage of the Presentation Theatre.

But with the help of William Neely's Lord Mountararat, Robin Taylor's Lord Tolloller and Marcia Gronewold's Iolanthe, the Lamplighters kept pace with the tempos set by conductor Bruce Lamott. Bruce Brisson's scenery and John Gilkerson's delightful costumes are holding up extremely well. Orva Hoskinson directed the proceedings with a knowing hand so that, by the end of the evening -- when everyone sprouted wings and flew off to Fairyland -- this revival of Iolanthe had became a solidly entertaining evening with the Lamplighters.


Once the initial shock to Jonathan Miller's radically different approach to directing The Mikado wore off, I was able to enjoy LAMCO's production of my favorite Gilbert & Sullivan operetta immensely. Framed by Stefanos Lazaridis' crazily cock-eyed and wildly skewed unit set and enhanced by Sue Blane's delightful costumes, this staging of The Mikado took on the frantic energy level of a Feydeau farce. A co-production with the English National Opera and Houston Grand Opera, Miller's concept of The Mikado insists that G&S traditionalists throw all their cares out the window and just try to relax and have themselves a rollicking good time. With the exception of trying to figure out exactly what Japan has to do with any of this (Isn't The Mikado really about the idiosyncrasies of British society?), there isn't much else one can do except sit back and enjoy the ride.

To liven things up, Miller has relocated Titipu to the southern coast of England, transforming the tiny town into a seaside resort populated by idiotically happy British school girls and the stuffy men who populate England's all-male clubs. Updated to the 1920s, Miller's vision of The Mikado includes a tap-dancing chorus of maids and butlers (who keep appearing out of nowhere and display boundlessly inane amounts of energy); a Pooh-Bah who reeks of British aristocracy's privileged corruption as he was, no doubt, intended to do by Sir William Gilbert; a sniveling and smarmy Ko-Ko who resembles a musical comedy version of Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo with a dick that knows no conscience; and a Katisha dressed up as a 1920's flapper-style vamp who occasionally likes to pose as a dowdy dowager recitalist.

Although I found conductor Robert Duerr's tempos a bit too slow for my tastes, the cast's boundless energy (combined with Miller's endless supply of sight gags) easily sold this Mikado to an audience that was eager to have itself a good time. Unlike Brian McDonald's incessantly unjustified tinkering, with the exception of Faye Greenburg's additional lyrics for "I've Got A Little List" and Ko-Ko's throwaway remark ("Oh, Bugger The Flowers That Bloom In The Spring,") not one word of Gilbert's original text was changed.

Much of the strength of LAMCO's production came from Dudley Moore's wonderfully comedic characterization of Ko-Ko as a slimy, tasteless and completely amoral petty bureaucrat. As Jonathan Miller's able-witted co-conspirator from Beyond the Fringe (the witty British revue which introduced the two men to American audiences back in 1961) Moore, who is a gifted stage comedian in his own right, was able to continually milk laughs from the audience with his painted face, leering presence and brilliant timing. Marvellee Cariaga's matronly Katisha was a superbly-etched if slightly undersung characterization.

Elsewhere in the cast, Michael Smith's Nanki-Poo came off as a deliciously aristocratic young Brit with an appealing tenorino voice while Kenneth Cox's richly-sung Mikado offered a ripe cartoon image. Dale Wendel was a pert young Yum-Yum who -- along with Stephanie Vlahos' Pitti-Sing and Suzanna Guzman's Peep-Bo -- constantly short-circuited the stuffy posturings of that priceless D'Oyly Carte veteran, Donald Adams, who portrayed the ridiculously pompous Pooh-Bah.

Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 12, 1988.

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