The Topsy-Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 4

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert
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“The Gondoliers”

The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert: the Productions

If many people think the works of Gilbert & Sullivan to be silly stuff, they are probably basing this conclusion on too many poor productions that they have seen, not only by well-meaning amateur groups but by some of the television versions shown over the PBS networks and introduced by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

When an actor suggested to Gilbert a piece of “comic” business that would get a laugh, the author’s reply was “So would sitting on a pork pie.” No one knew better than Gilbert that a comedian who tries to be funny simply isn’t. (How many of you get annoyed when comics begin to laugh at their own material?) The funniest of the silent comedians, Buster Keaton, took life on screen very seriously indeed, never losing his Great Stone Face for a moment. Red Skelton, on the other hand, and even the venerable Harry Lauder, lessened their routines by laughing far too often.

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Mabel gives marching orders to the police in a 1909 production

Probably the best example of thwarting Gilbert’s intentions is the entrance of the Police in “The Pirates of Penzance.” If they come out looking and deporting themselves like ordinary English Bobbies, then their cowardice is all the more funny because it contradicts the visual impression. But when a noted New York company sent them out onto the stage dressed as circus clown-police, complete with big flowers pinned to lapels, the humor of what they were singing was expected and simply silly. Even the filmed Papp version has them looking and acting like Keystone Kops; and the Sergeant’s rubberleg dancing is wonderful to behold but as far from the spirit of the play as could possibly be.

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Sir Joseph keeps his dignity even with his amorous cousin Hebe

The point is that an idiot like Sir Joseph Porter is not supposed to know he is an idiot, and fortunately he is seldom played incorrectly. When a certain local production had him enter and sit in a beach chair supplied by his loving cousin Hebe and put on a shaded monocle, followed by a second one for the other eye, it was clownish but still in keeping with the character’s sense of self-importance. When George Rose played the Major-General in a Nigel Bruce voice, it still “worked” as a valid interpretation. But when he was directed (as I suppose he was) to tell his terrible story about being an orphan with a stage-Irish accent, the humor of the pirates believing the lie simply fell flat.

When the video version of “HMS Pinafore” opens with the crew twirling in a dance routine–bringing unfortunate memories of a similar routine in “Blazing Saddles”–all feeling of the Nautical is washed away (shall we say?) and the crew never can be looked upon as human characters for the rest of the show. Constables do not wear big daisies on their uniforms and sailors do not spin around en point aboard a ship.

The character, I think, who suffers the most in poor productions is Ko-Ko. As it turns out, he IS something of an idiot but does not pretend to be a great intellect. (Follow any political campaign for a counter-example.) Ko-Ko knows he is out of his depth and one should really feel sorry for him when he has to woo Katisha. Martyn Green tells us that for years he sang “Tit-Willow” as a comic song until a little old lady berated him for ruining such a lovely melody. Since then, he found he got a much better effect by treating it seriously. (My point exactly.)

Here is another abuse of G&S intentions. There are many “asides” in Victorian plays, moments in which a character acknowledges the presence of the audience. This is a time-honored tradition and accepted by the audience. But more and more I see byplay between a character on stage and the orchestra, usually the conductor, in which a cheap laugh is achieved at the loss of all credibility.

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Eric Idle (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) as Ko-Ko

Another way to get cheap laughs is to insert modern references, such as those to all things Canadian in the Stratford, Ontario “Mikado,” in which all these “jokes” fell very flatly on non-Canadian ears. Now it is fine, I suppose, to make the entire production an anachronism, such as the “Mikado” that takes place in the lobby of an English seaside hotel in the 1920s. But even here Eric Idle’s Little List song was filled with references to audience-contemporary rather than period-contemporary customs and foibles. Now, while they were mostly quite clever and truly funny, it was Gilbert who suffered. Yes, I know Gilbert himself allowed updating of some of the lyrics to that song; but the Idle version was a complete rewrite and something too much of an “improvement.”

So let me end this mini-series with the caveat: Never judge a work from its production. And you local groups out there who love G&S, please do not ruin it for those unfamiliar with the original works.

Seldom Done, “Princess Ida” Gets a Fine Production in Seattle

A-OLO-Princess IdaSeldom Done, “Princess Ida” Gets a Fine Production in Seattle

I have been writing much about the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Here, I want to commend their 2007 production of the seldom-performed “Princess Ida.” With a weak libretto, dialogue in blank verse, and an uncomfortable anti-feminist approach, this work still has one of the most delightful scores in the G&S series.

Taking aim at women who, in Gilbert’s time, wanted equal rights to an advanced education, the plot concerns Prince Hilarion (Scott Rittenhouse) and his two friends Cyril (John Brookes) and Florian (Michael Giles) who break into Castle Adamant so that the Prince can claim his bride Princess Ida (Amanda Brown), while her father King Gama (Dave Ross) is held hostage by King Hildebrand (William J. Darkow), father to Hilarion. (Get it?)

Among the students of Adamant, all of whom are sworn to avoid males of any kind (including chessmen and roosters), are the philosophical Lady Blanche (Alyce Rogers), her daughter Melissa (Elizabeth Ford), and Florian’s sister Psyche (Cara Iverson). And let me not forget Ida’s three hulking brothers, who always appear in armor until they have to fight, at which time they strip it all off.

The songs are a joy. Gama has two patter songs, the first of which is really Gilbert’s opinion of himself; Psyche has the delightful tale of the ape who loved a lovely maiden; Ida has two operatic arias of great beauty; the three young men have two funny trios in a row; the three brothers have a wonderful parody of Handelian oratorio; and all of the ensembles are either amusing or beautiful. Lady Blanche’s only solo is among the worst Sullivan ever composed (look at the lyrics!), but I am glad it is kept for the sake of completeness.

The scenery is colorful and does a good 180-degree rotation in Act II. The costumes are as Gilbert wanted them: medieval, despite the presence of telescopes and cigars. There is some silly ad-libbing as the men change into women’s gowns, but that is the only addition to the text; and the three brothers do bump into each other a little too often. But in general, director Christine Goff shows respect for her author and composer, and conductor Bernard Kwiram gives her able support from the pit.

Copies can be ordered through the website at www.pattersong.org.

Seattle Group Does “The Grand Duke” Proud

 

 

A-OLO-Grand DukeSeattle Group Does “The Grand Duke” Proud

Gilbert and Sullivan’s final collaboration, “The Grand Duke,” was created in less than the best of circumstances. Earlier, Gilbert had taken Sullivan and their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte to court (!) over some financial matters that included the cost of a new carpet in their Savoy Theater. When the three were reunited with “Utopia, Ltd.,” it was clear that Sullivan was starting to repeat himself. In “The Grand Duke,” the plot is the most complicated and surely the silliest of any of their former efforts; and the score shows strong evidence that Sullivan was pretty burned out.

On the other hand, Gilbert seems to have “fallen” for the Hungarian soprano cast to play Julia and compromised his libretto by building up her part to more than it could hold. (He did the same with another soprano in “Utopia, Ltd,” and ultimately adopted her!)

I saw a production in New York that cut the text heavily and actually added a scene created by someone who thought Act II needed improvement. The songs are for the most part jolly but not particularly memorable. There is a beautiful ensemble in Act I that recalls the madrigal in “The Mikado” and offers a sort of oasis from the (I hate to say it) pedestrian tunes around it. Indeed, two or three of Sullivan’s worst efforts are found in this score; and I thought it is no wonder that it ran only 123 performances.

On repeated hearings, however, I am getting to like many of the numbers through familiarity. Also, I realize I am consciously or not comparing the score with the ones I grew up with, and this is not nice.

However, the intrepid Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, true to its mission of producing and committing to video all of the Savoy operettas, did a very complete version of the original “Grand Duke” script and score in 1999. It makes, amazingly, a good case for the work. Granted that the dialogue does go on far too long in many spots, director Hal Ryder accepted the work as written–no current joking references–and managed to bring life into it with a cast that takes the silliness and spotty score and makes it sound good for the most part.

Set in the 1930s (an updating departure for the Seattle group), the plot unfolds showing a theatrical group who is plotting to overthrow the Grand Duke and take over the government. There is much ado about eating sausage rolls, statutory duels fought with a deck of cards, and one character finding himself engaged to four women at the same time. The overly long first act is divided into two acts—a very wise choice. The voices are a bit removed from the overhanging microphones, and a copy of the text would help during the musical numbers, as indeed with any operetta. Two of the songs in what is Act III in this production are not found in the standard text.

I had the pleasure of watching our local Moving Company perform a non-musical version I had prepared for them—and the Keene Sentinel compared it to a Monty Python sketch. Once again, Gilbert was there first! In fact, this DVD has no competition at all. Both Gilbert and Sullivan fans and theatre historians will surely want to own the Seattle “Grand Duke.” It can be purchased through their website at www.pattersong.org.

A Well Done “Mikado” with Lyrics Problems from Seattle

 

IMG_20150529_0001_NEWA Well Done “Mikado” With Lyrics Problems from Seattle

There was once a production of “The Marriage of Figaro” that takes place in Trump Tower. Although the concept of a Count having the “droit du seigneur” over any bride-to-be on his estate is ridiculous enough in 20th-century New York City, things are made worse when the Italian text is clearly heard to be “Siviglia” when the subtitles say “New Jersey.” At least, Da Ponte’s lyrics are not changed, although they are totally out of synch with what is seen on stage.

There was an African group at Keene Stage College performing a “Macbeth” set in Africa but the Scottish place names were maintained. Here I would have welcomed a change in proper nouns to maintain the illusion.

All of this is prologue to my column, which is more of an essay today than a review.

My readers must know by now how fond I am of the DVD releases from the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society. On the other hand, I have always been testy about their changing the lyrics—or adding stanzas with new lyrics—to songs or throwing current references into the dialogue. The usual reason is that “Some of Gilbert’s references have little or no meaning to modern audiences.” This I can understand and counter with the idea of adding a glossary of such references to the playbill.

Why is “operetta” an excuse for changing dialogue and lyrics while grand opera (even when the staging is updated) is allowed to keep the words the librettist intended? Of course, Gilbert and Sullivan is not holy writ; but if a group chooses to do their works, they should give the audience what is advertised.

So here is a very good traditional production of “The Mikado,” the most popular operetta in the world, with a good cast, a good conductor (Bernard Kwiram), an inventive director (Christine Goff), and even a bit of ballet (ARC School of Ballet)—all this (to me) unable to ignore changing all of the references in Ko-Ko’s “Little list” song AND almost all of the references in the Mikado’s song.

Okay, every production changes the list song. But take for example a reference to “the senator from Idaho” that gets a tremendous laugh from the audience. This might have been hot stuff back in 2008, but the joke is totally lost to most viewers watching the DVD today. Worse, here and in the Mikado’s song, while the audience is roaring at this or that reference, the next line is being sung but not heard by any one.

Granted that no one, including modern British audiences, knows much if anything about “parliamentary trains”; but, as I say, an explanation in the program notes is all that is needed. And if Nanki-Poo’s comparing the Mikado with Lucius Junius Brutus is changed to Lord Valdemort, I can tolerate that reference despite its being an anachronism.

Of course, when the Mikado asks Ko-Ko where Nanki-Poo has gone, the original joke has the reply “Knightsbridge”—the location of the Japanese exhibit that inspired Gilbert to write this libretto. Today, directors substitute the name of some local place. Here, Oklahoma City gets a big laugh. And I can’t think why.

Setting this aside and the overuse of snapping fans open and shut, this is a well-conceived production with an excellent Ko-Ko (John Brookes). If Dave Ross is physically somewhat less than imposing as the Mikado, he sings well and is allowed to keep two of Gilbert’s original references in his “punishment fit the crime” number. Parker Albin is a pleasant Nanki-Poo, although he does look a bit like Li’l Abner, and Cara Iverson shows a good comic technique as Yum-Yum. She is ably assisted by the other two little maids, Carla Hilderbrand as Pitti-Sing and Annette Dennis as Peep-Bo.

I always miss a good basso profundo for Pooh-Bah, but Craig Cantley’s delivery is good enough, while William J. Darkow (looking much like Timothy Spall when he played the Mikado in the film “Topsy-Turvy”) gets some humor into his Pish-Tush. As she always does in her contralto roles, Alyce Rogers dominates the stage as Katisha.

I am hoping that future productions by this capable group will modify their changes to these works in the future.

“Ruddigore” is Given Complete in Ohio Light Opera Recording

 

IMG_20150528_0001_NEW“Ruddigore” is Given Complete in Ohio Light Opera Recording

When Cole Porter’s “Out of This World” premiered in 1950, the critics could not help (I assume) crying down its value because it did not compare with his 1948 “Kiss Me Kate.” So when Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddygore, or The Witch’s Curse” opened in 1887, boos were heard for the first time in their career, mostly because it could not top “The Mikado” of 1885. Not fair, but that’s what audiences are like. So several revisions were made, mostly cuts, for the rest of the run. And the title was changed orthographically but not phonetically to “Ruddigore.” The subtitle was nearly changed to “Not so Good as The Mikado,” but that silly idea was dropped.

When revived in 1920, even more cuts began to be made, the most important of which were the Act I love duet “The battle’s roar is over,” an Act II patter song for Robin Oakapple, and a very snappy Act II finale sequence that led into the usual reprise of an earlier number. Even the Overture, which contained the excised material, had to be revised—and not for the better.

The three D’Oyly Carte Company recordings keep most of the cuts. None of them have the snappy finale or the patter song, while the 1931 electric recording omits the duet, which is included on the 1924 acoustic and the 1962 stereo versions. The monophonic LP of 1952 has even further cuts. Including the 1962 stereo version with Glyndebourne singers and the very complete 1987 recording with the New Sadler’s Wells forces, there are scarcely two recordings that are consistent in what is included.

However, what they all lack is the dialogue. And now the Ohio Light Opera company’s production is out in a 2-CD set on the Albany label, and any Ruddigore-lover’s fondest wish has come true. Not only are many of the musical cuts restored but the complete dialogue is included.

Although it lacks the period charm of the older 78 rpm recordings, the cast sounds just right for this spoof on the Victorian gothic melodrama of pure village maidens (who know how to follow the money), simple village lads (with horrible secrets), wicked baronets (who crave to be virtuous), simple seamen (who are motivated purely by self-interest), faithful family retainers (who become as wicked as their masters), village mad women (who are almost cured by a sort of mantra), and haunted castles (with picture galleries that come alive at “the night’s high noon”).  And one must mention a female population entirely devoted to being bridesmaids during a depression in the marriage market.

The tunes are as delightful as any found in the other G&S works, while the dialogue spoofs the genre simply by sounding exactly like it with slight exaggerations. And, of course, the Act II patter trio is the patter song to end all patter songs. Some say that the ghost music is almost too good for a spoof; but Sullivan is more of a major composer than some admit and must be given some leeway to “show his stuff.” (The next work, “The Yeoman of the Guard,” gives him an entire work to show his serious side.)

My only slight complaint (too strong a word for this excellent OLO production) is that the pacing of the dialogue could be a little snappier. As with all of their past G&S recordings, they speak it very slowly lest a single bit of humor escape the audience. That said, I can find little fault with any aspect of this recording. I do wish, however, they used the original, not the revised, Overture.

The cast includes Ted Christopher (Robin), Cecily Ellis (Rose), Frederick Reeder (Despard), Anthony Buck (Dick), Dennis Jesse (Roderic), Jessie Wright Martin (Hannah), and Sahara Glasener-Boles (Margaret). Unlike the male vocalists in the New Sadler’s Wells recording, those here have the deep voices needed for their characters, especially the bottomless basso of Cory Clines (Adam).

While conductor Michael Borowitz’ tempos are now and then a little slow, he obviously loves the score and even gives an encore of the last stanza of the patter trio.

The running time is a very enjoyable 130 minutes and the complete text is provided in the program notes.