Tuesday, December 11, 2007

When The Balls Whistle Free O'er The Bright Blue Sea

What do Ethel Merman, Carol Channing and the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company have in common? Well, for one, they all seem to be indestructible. Each also has a long history of excellence in performing throughout the long run of a show, when many other performers would succumb to the “long run blues.”

The Merm, God bless her, was always able to deliver a near-perfect performance. It was almost as if she had put the computer on auto-pilot and could afford to worry about which groceries to shop for while trying onstage to her man with a gun. Less than a week prior to opening a show in New York, she was approached by a lyricist who wanted to change one line in the show. The Merm staunchly refused, answering “The show is frozen, buddy. You can call me Miss Bird’s Eye.”

Carol Channing is a bit more deliberate. When Hello, Dolly! was first established as a success, she had a friend take notes of every movement, inflection, and minute bit of detail in the production. In subsequent revivals that notebook has been her bible. “It is inviolate,” she states. “If you don’t do each gesture on cue, you don’t get the laugh that comes with it.” Yet Channing always seems to be delivering a purely spontaneous performance.

The D’Oyly Carte was in San Francisco this month and they must hold the all-time record. While in town they brought with them three all-time favorites: The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore (which celebrated its hundredth birthday while at the Curran). Generations have watched a succession of lead players within the D’Oyly Carte and faces come and go from the ensemble. John Reed, who has been with the company for 26 years, is still handling most of the patter roles. He is nimble, droll, and acerbic as Sir Joseph Porter, the ruler of the Queen’s Navee, and nothing short of marvelous as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner.

All three productions were in top form. The Mikado featured another company stalwart, Kenneth Sandford, who must be the greatest Pooh-Bah that ever stalked the earth. The troupe’s chief contralto these days is Patricia Leonard. Her Little Buttercup appears skinnier than most others, but as Katisha she turned in a performance of towering proportions which ranked with those of Ella Halman and Anne Drummond-Grant.

James Conroy-Ward, the second patter man, handled the role of Major General Stanley in Pirates better than anyone I can remember.

The remarkable thing about the D’Oyly Carte is their freshness. Many of the company make a lifetime career out of Gilbert and Sullivan, and boredom could easily set in. However, each evening’s work was fresh, clean, and (with the exception of some slow cue pickups by the local orchestra) immaculately performed. One source of joy is their diction. In an age when most performers rely on a microphone and still manage to produce only mush, the D’Oyly Carte’s singers enunciate with a crispness that is remarkable. There are fine voices within the troupe. Valerie Masterson has graduated from the company to sing major operatic roles in England.

Also, a certain awareness of the nonsense of it all has crept into the proceedings and not just in the cherished encores that follow favorite songs. These encores are legendary bits of shtick , many of them well memorized by the audience of adoring Savoyard fans. But a certain air now surrounds these sacred bits of business that is an admission by the company that “We know that you know that we know that you know ...” Thus, Sir Joseph Porter toys with the orchestra players in an effort to get them to stop making such a racket and boring him with all these encores until he finally understand ravels a banner announcing “The End.” In Pirates of Penzance, the Chief of Police, after several encores of “When the Foreman Bares His Steel,” comes onstage and mouths the lyrics silently, leaving the audience devastated with laughter.

The new romantic leads, Reid Meston and Julia Goss, have fine voices. Miss Goss has a certain English box-faced daffiness about her that is a delight.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 22, 1978.

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