Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Some Serious Gilbert and Sullivan – The Uneasy Mix of Opera and Operetta
I wonder if any other political satirist has had the longevity of W. S. Gilbert. The operettas he wrote with a somewhat reluctant Arthur Sullivan in the time of Queen Victoria are still regularly performed, though not always in ways he would have recognized. Some works, like “HMS Pinafore “ and “The Mikado” have entered the cultural vernacular.
One of their last efforts together is less well known, in part because of its departures. In an attempt to convince Sullivan to continue the collaboration, Gilbert agreed to create a more serious, more operatic piece – still lighter than Verdi, but with no political jokes and a more serious undertone. What they created was “The Yeomen of the Guard.”
The new production of this classic, now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, has been directed by Eugene J. Hutchins with an eye to that more serious tone. Indeed, he takes it a few steps further than the original libretto. For someone who only vaguely knows Gilbert and Sullivan works, or who is accustomed to their more lighthearted fare, this may be a bit of a shock, though the concept works.
What doesn’t always work is the stress on operatic delivery rather than the more operetta-meets-musical-theater style one is used to hearing. In true opera voice, diction is often sacrificed for tone. In Gilbert and Sullivan, the words are everything and diction is key. What is a patter song if you cannot understand the patter?
First, for the somewhat less ridiculous than usual story: it is 1603. Elizabeth I has just died and been succeeded by James I, previously King of Scotland. Colonel Fairfax, who has somehow run afoul of the government during this transition, is to be executed in the Tower of London, though there is some question as to whether this is warranted or not.
As his death approaches, he marries a blindfolded girl so that his fortune will not go to a disliked relative. Then, with the help of some within the Tower establishment, he escapes. What of his wife? He doesn’t know who she is. What of the girl who has yearned for him despite the fact her father is an officer of the guard? What will become of those responsible for guarding him, or for helping him escape? As he falls for a traveling entertainer, what shall become of that lady’s long-term companion who loves her?
The best of this production are those cast members who manage to balance vocal quality with articulate, character-driven performances. Chief among these are Luis Marez Ordaz, as the galoot of an executioner harboring a crush on the guard’s daughter, and Michelle Caravia as the traveling entertainer Fairfax loves. Also worthy of note in this large (but not large enough – the chorus is tiny) cast are Katherine Trimble as the object of the executioner’s affections, Ryan Reithmeier as her father, Joseph Garate as the handsome colonel, and Michelle Holmes as a crusty denizen of the Tower.
The show’s greatest sticking point is the very energetic and obviously talented Matthew Welch, as the Harlequin-style entertainer losing his girl to the colonel’s advances. Though the rest of the cast has opted for somewhat subtle British-esque accents, he’s a full-blown cockney, with an accent thicker than any cast member of “My Fair Lady.” The result, for a standard American audience, is a huge question mark. Indeed, I’ve got a solid ear for British speech of many kinds, but between the swiftness of his lines and the thickness of his accent, he was often completely unintelligible. Since this character exists as the great tragic center of the piece, this is a specific loss. One never establishes the necessary sense of empathy with him to make one feel sorrow over his state.
Looking toward the technical end, one also has a mixed, though fixable and generally positive bag. The set, by Edward Haynes, Jr., is one of the best SMP has sported in years. The costumes, by the venerable and talented Shon LeBlanc, give the appropriate period feel and silhouette (though one cannot help but wonder why the colonel seems to be in Burmuda shorts instead of the requisite longer pantaloons). The musical direction, by Brian Asher Alhadeff, is sound except for the fact that he plays the single-piano accompaniment so loud in the first act that he drowns out some of his singers’ best work.
“The Yeomen of the Guard” is only a part of a larger Gilbert and Sullivan festival being sponsored by the theater, which includes staged readings of some of Gilbert’s straight plays, and concerts of favorites from other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Check the theater’s website or call them for more information.
What: “The Yeomen of the Guard” When: Through September 24, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 Sundays, with ASL interpretation for the deaf and audio description for the blind on August 26. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87. W. Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org