Review – Princess Ida – The Steam Industry and Szpiezak Productions at Finborough Theater

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Living in the UK has transformed how I’ve seen Gilbert and Sullivan’s work. From fusty and dusty it’s gone all topsy-turvy, thanks to the graceful restoration work performed under Sasha Regan’s fine eye at the Union Theater and now the rambunctious re-engagement of Charles Court Opera. As a mainstay of US Am Dram groups, it was turgid and nap-inducing: with all-male casts (like Regan’s Pirates of Penzance) and clever restagings a la much of Shakespeare’s canon (in the case of Charles Court – the goffick Patience was an excellent example), we have been allowed to re-engage with the work from a narrative and a musical standpoint. The bones of Gilbert and Sullivan, like the oak supports of an old house, are amazing: strip off the wallpaper and the adversion to discussion anything sexual and suddenly you have singable, witty musicals populated by eminently memorable characters all being very funny.

Yet bubbling beneath the surface like a sulfuric spring in the Med is the possibility that even G&S may have had a few clunkers. Look, for example, at Princess Ida. I asked a friend about this production, and his response was that it was Gilbert “punching down,” as offensive as Taming of the Shrew but “with less excuse.” I was shocked: this is the biggest Gilbert and Sullivan fan that I know! But I was also a bit put off when I saw that it hadn’t been performed professionally in London “for over 20 years” (per the website). And then I discovered that it was written in iambic verse. Oh man! Obviously it didn’t get produced for two decades because it’s a total dog! Arrgh! But I had already booked tickets for Saturday’s show and I decided to just tough it out.

As it turns out, both the warnings I’d received and the fears I’d conceived were unfounded. Yes, this play pokes fun at women’s education, making the point that members of the “gentle sex” are generally incapable of intellectual rigor due to their sensibilities; but there was no doubt in my mind that the men of this piece were also presented as fairly brainless and driven by their hormones. So my worries about it being mean and intolerable were allayed; in fact, one of the highlights of the evening was a song called “Must” (in the original by Lady Blanche, but I believe sung by Lady Meg – Victoria Quigley – in this production). It ends in a call for women to get the vote, and I found it very touching – but, as it turns, this creation, both in verse and sentiment, is almost entirely the work of Phil Wilmott, who looked back on this musical moment through the lens of history and decided to expand it. There was also a rather revised ending that proposes a much happier future for some than the hopelessly heterocentric original could have ever conceived; it was obviously not G&S but it was funny and I think it felt fresh and appropriate.

From the production side, there’s no denying it was done on a budget – two electric pianos (not that you could fit much more in the Finborough and as it was, one of them nearly wound up in the audience); a set that barely manages two different looks; and costumes that aim for Alma Tadema but manage with their unusual seaming to hit Hubba Hubba Honey (for both Ida and Prince Cyril – Ida’s should be less bum hugging and Cyril ought not to be so short as to have us thinking of Scotsman and their underkilt attire). But, still, the goal isn’t to recreate the original, but to give us a change to experience the music (written, all agree, when G&S were at their creative heights) and (most of) the plot. Wisely, there is no stinting with the quality of the performers. Bridget Costello is effortlessly winning as Princess Ida, with her warm voice and sparkling blue eyes: of course all of the princes of the kingdoms would come to win her hand! And to cast Simon Butteriss (perhaps you remember him from Topsy-Turvy?) as Lord Gama, Ida’s uptight yet lecherous guardian, is just stonking good luck for us in the audience – he’s supercilious and unctuous, a horrible combination of Grand Moff Tarkin and Benny Hill – but most importantly, a damned fine singer with a sharp sense of comic timing. In fact, down to the maids/maidens and the lesser princes, the whole cast emanates personality and tunefulness, so that all we need to be transported is small hints in the forms of props and carefully draped statues. It’s an incredibly enjoyable event.

Is it, though, a textbook example of theater of the Victorian age and the sentiments that the Victorians held? No, it is modern, both in its approach and its reconstruction of the dialogue and lyrics to meet modern views while still keeping to the arc of the story. This allows us to hear wonderful songs that we would otherwise have missed out on while being extravagantly amused. I highly enjoyed my night out and, based on ticket sales, you had better jump on those tickets or you may have to wait another 20 years to get your chance.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 28, 2015. It continues through April 18th.)

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