Posts Tagged ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’

Review – HMS Pinafore – Charles Court Opera at King’s Head Theater

April 18, 2019

Although I am generally prone to follow the work of particular playwrights or choreographers, I have made it a habit over the years to see everything Charles Court Opera puts on. In addition to their consistently hilarious pantos, their updated take on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan has done much, in my eyes, to show the solid gold that too frequently has been left hiding under the dust. Artistic Director John Savournin really has an eye to keeping things fresh, as well as an ability to recruit strong talent – so I came to their H.M.S. Pinafore with much enthusiasm.

This Pinafore is, rather than a sailing boat, a submarine, done in a cheerful mostly yellow color scheme that suited the 1960s setting – if making it a bit hard to figure out how a “bum boat woman” (Jennie Jacobs as Buttercup) could actually make it to the ship. That said, the Jackie Kennedy hairdo and styling of Josephine (Alys Roberts) was perfect – she looked just like the sort of charming ingenue capable both of being chased by an admiral (Joseph Shovelton) and loved madly by a lowly seaman (Phillip Lee). The man playing her father, Captain Corcoran (Matthew Palmer) was so fresh faced and pink cheeked that it seemed hard to imagine him as her father – he looked all of thirty! – but given how the play ends it was probably for the best that he looked so young. Meanwhile, the Admiral – who shows up in a diving suit – was a huge ham and big scene stealer, although his aunt – of “his sisters, and his cousins and his aunts” – managed to upstage him consistently, and without uttering a word. Trust me on this.

Staging and costumes is all fine, but what about the singing? While Ralph had a lovely voice and the Admiral a suitably booming one, I found myself entirely won over by Roberts’ turn as the captain’s daughter. “Sorry her lot” is a sappy piece of work, but I could hear convincing young love within her voice. And her scene telling off Ralph – with many asides – nicely switched from aggravation to desperation without either seeming forced! I kept wanting to push back at the sugariness of the original, but instead I found myself cheering on the two of them … wholly succumbing to the charm of the work. And my, didn’t the jokes about the British class system still hold up in their entirety.

While this production didn’t “push the boat out” much, so to speak, the delight of hearing this cream of the crop show in such an intimate environment is not to be underestimated. Charles Court have done well and I am sure they will have full houses eager to spend their evenings laughing at a well executed romp.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. It continues through May 11th.)

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Review – The Zoo and Trial by Jury – Charles Court Opera at the King’s Head Theatre

April 24, 2015

I’d hear a little about Trial by Jury before Charles Court announced its production – but it seemed a clarion call to work on my Gilbert and Sullivan completism – after all, as a forty minute long one act, Trial By Jury doesn’t seem to get produced very much. And I’ve been feeling very warm about Charles Court Opera, given the three home runs in a row of Patience, Ruddigore and their extremely silly panto that proved the unexpected highlight of the Christmas season. So why not see a double header? And, to my surprise, a theater loving friend in Brighton declared herself so excited by the whole thing that she decided to come up to see it with me, for a Sunday evening show! What could go wrong?

The first piece, The Zoo, was fluffy to near astronomical heights. There was not much of a plot – a pharmacist (David Menezes) in love with a girl (Catrine Kirkman) whose father (Matthew Kellet) resents him for misprescribing a medicine: a peer (John Savournin) whose secret delight is to woo the woman (Nichola Jolley) who mans the refreshment stand at the zoo – these characters meet at the zoo, where the pharmacist is somewhat inconveniencing the other lovebirds by attempting to hang himself. While the songs were fun to listen to, it seems almost churlish to not focus on the hysterical performances given by the performers while (frequently) not singing. Jolley’s cockney accent was killing me, but OOH Savournin packing his face full of cake and eclairs was a sight to see, a veritable side show in itself. The level of mugging was truly epic. We were in stitches. And, er, the singing was very enjoyable as well, but this was absolutely one to see live.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get funnier, we came back from the interval to the chaos of The Trial. Apparently the whole thing was set up as a Jeremy Kyle spoof (I was, but what was absolutely slaying me was the peculiar quiver Catrine Kirkman was giving to her upper lip as “the plaintiff,” a chavtastic bridezilla with a nine-month bump to match the chip on her shoulder. She managed an amusingly nasal tone to her voice, but thankfully as better singing was called for (and less comedy), she gently dropped the facade and let it rip, showing her fine pipes to our pleasure (if to the disadvantage of her character but we can’t really have bad singing now, can we?). Meanwhile there was so much other stuff going on that the main story about the husband to be who jilted her was slipping into the background in favor of, for example, the massively camp performance of John Savournin as The Judge, and the hysterical peeping of Matthew Kellert as the clerk who is offering to save “the plaintiff” from her fate. You couldn’t have possibly kept up this much gurning and goofing around with a longer show, but as forty minutes of in-your-face comedy, it was just hysterical. Side by side with The Zoo, it was like having dessert twice in a row, but I just couldn’t complain because I was laughing too much.

(This review is for a performance that took place the evening of Sunday, April 19, 2015. It continues through May 10th.)

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

March 31, 2015

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.)

Review – Patience – Charles Court Opera at King’s Head Theater

June 24, 2014

I was absolutely willing to pass on seeing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience at the King’s Head Theater, despite it being the one I can sing along to all of the songs, because, well, I just didn’t have much faith in it not being … well, stodgy. I loved the Union theater’s all-male Patience in 2012, but that was just Sasha’s magic at work, right? The last thing I wanted was some historically pure production that sent me off to nap land, no matter how much dragoon guards and aesthetes make me giggle.

But then I heard it was a Goth Patience. And suddenly, it seemed so much more relevant to not just my life but to modernity. The whole “twenty lovesick maidens” who go around being woeful and in love with a total loser poet seemed so absolutely right for this script. And Goth has a lot in common with the aesthetes, especially if you feel like poking a bit of fun at people who take what they wear a bit too seriously. I wasn’t sure how they were going to work in the whole “Patience is a milkmaid” thing but it all seemed very promising and I scooted out and got tickets for my next available free night.

As it turns out, this was a very appropriate adaptation that took the characters of the shallow, fashionable women (and men) and found a perfectly reasonable excuse for them to be among us for, surely, people who value looking a certain way over personal accomplishments are just as present in modern society as they were in Oscar Wilde’s time. It was all set at the Castle pub (a Camden Goth hangout), and Patience herself had changed from a lowly milkmaid to a tan, outdoorsy barmaid … exactly the kind of person Goths would snub. The only clash was the Dragoon guards … I found it hard to believe a bunch of soldiers would ever be the sweethearts of a pack of Goth chicks, but, well, disbelief must be suspended: however, when they came back all in their best version of Goth garb (so to better woo the ladies), the one dressed as a mime had just so clearly got the whole thing wrong that I burst out laughing. Yes, it seems mostly right, just using black and white face paint does not a Goth make.

The singing was very good, with the performers uniformly seeming to have operatically trained voices. However, I got the feeling that maybe Gilbert and Sullivan wasn’t their forte – the songs, to me, would have benefitted from a bit less vibrato and a bit more patter practice. That said, the words were mostly clear, and the “updates” (such as referencing Frank Sinatra, Primark, and Nietzche) made the show even funnier.

Overall this was a very lively evening and well worth the small investment in time (just over two hours with a 7:15 start ensuring I got home at a decent time), especially at the affordable ticket price. Thank you for a fleshly show, of full comedy!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, June 19th, 2014. It continues through June 28th.)

Review – All Male H.M.S. Pinafore – Union Theater

November 10, 2013

It’s hard for me not to think of Gilbert and Sullivan and not immediately cringe. Their operettas choke on their own treacle – always a happy ending, inoffensive, prudish. No wonder am dram societies love them.

This received knowledge has been turned on its head by Sasha Regan’s witty all-male stagings. Starting with Pirates of Penzance in 2007, she’s pared away the accumulations of decades to reveal the tuneful songs, pointed jokes, and confused relations (between sexes and classes) that have, apparently, always been there. And she’s made them beautiful to watch … and sexy.

Gilbert and Sullivan sexy? Oh yes, and especially the Union’s H.M.S. Pinafore. The extreme manliness of a ship full of sailors – tussling in their bunks, working out in their smalls, stuffed four by four into the tiny thrust stage – was, um, disturbing, but in a good way. For me. A WWII aircraft carrier bunk room provides the trope for the production – they’re on ship, they’re bored, they’re going to play a pipe, dance a bit, and sing to each other. Watching them horse around during the overture helped pull me out of the present and into the show. The handling of the prologue is one of the cleverest elements of the Union’s G & S productions: by making the performers a group of friends doing something for themselves (for example, in Iolanthe, they were kids at a boarding school), the audience is provided a context for both why the cast is male and why they might suddenly decide to do a show together. Of course they’re doing Gilbert and Sullivan, everyone knows their music! It makes the casting feel completely sensible and not gimmicky, neither “being done to make a point” nor “a marketing ploy.” The show flows completely naturally from its beginning. It’s not a “gay” Pinafore: it’s just Pinafore, but the audience must now see it with modern eyes, without bustles and wigs in the way. And on such a small stage, the words and music are inescapable, leading to the shocking discovery that, actually, it’s damned funny. Who would have known?

The plot of Pinafore is fairly simple: a young sailor (Ralph – Tom Senior) is in love with his captain’s daughter (Josephine – Bex Roberts), who has been promised to “Sir Joseph,” the First Lord of the Admiralty (David McKechnie). There has to be a happy ending, but how will they get there? Meanwhile: who is Buttercup (Ciaran O’Driscoll), the “bum boat” woman,” and just how evil is hunchback Dick Deadeye (Lee Van Geleen)? The plot is moved ahead by songs that seem impossible to accept without strong doses of irony: “We Sail the Ocean Blue,” “A British Tar:” they seem ridiculous! But then, it seems more likely that they should be taken tongue in cheek when played against the captain’s “My Gallant Crew, Good Morning” (in which he reveals that he’s not very brave at all) and Sir Joseph’s “When I Was a Lad” (a complete satire of how to get ahead in the government – or, perhaps, the rude reality, be friends with the powerful, then as now!). Choreographer Lizzy Gee adds lots of fun to it all, putting the sailors to work doing semaphore-style dance moves and inserting an entire Olympic program that manages to mock Chariots of Fire as well as Darwin’s Ascent of Man. It’s all just heaps of fun and as a bonus, well, yummy sailors ahoy!

One of the biggest struggles for this series has been the difficulty of finding strong male counter-tenors in the ranks of the young actors that tend to take these parts; this leads to problems in volume, especially in mixed gender duets, when the female characters are overwhelmed by the stronger voices of the males (a problem for “Refrain, Audacious Tar”). However, Regan has a real winner in Ciaran O’Driscoll, who not only is a convincing, lovesick middle-aged woman, but who has a strong and warm voice perfectly suited to his role. Bex Roberts’ isn’t able to hold up against Tom Senior’s when they duet, but Roberts’ tone is sweet and his singing quite on, if soft.

Overall this show was ebullient, and I spent nearly the entire evening grinning from ear to ear. I’ve already booked to see it again at the end of the month, but I wish I could see it every week all winter long – now that would be the cure for the cold weather blues.

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(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 1st, 2013. It continues through November 30th.)

Review – Pirates of Penzance (all male cast) – Union Theatre Southwark

July 17, 2009

I AWARDED THIS SHOW BEST MUSICAL OF 2009. SEE IT AGAIN AT WILTON’S MUSIC HALL APRIL 2010.

Last night Jason, W and I went to the Union Theatre to see Pirates of Penzance. I’m a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan (not mad like some but there are pictures of me performing in Patience out there) and I’m a fan of the Union Theatre and the excitement that seeing a musical in such a small space creates for me as an audience member. Furthermore, this promised the zest and zing of an all-male cast. Woo! It wasn’t going to be Company, that’s for sure, but it sounded like something that I would enjoy immensely – and at £15 a ticket, it was a great price.

From the start, it pulled me in, as the Pirates (led by Pirate King Alan Winner, a buttery-voiced singer) bounded and bounced onto stage, all bluff and bluster and with ten times the energy I have for an entire month, filling the room with bodies and voices and pulling you into “the show” (and away from dull reality) with a bang. There amongst them (I was pointedly looking for cross-gendered cast experience, but was confused for a bit as to whether or not the person in qustion was a pirate) was the cherry-lipped Ruth (Samuel J Holmes), all fluttering eyes and tattered skirts and as unattractive a 47 year old nursemaid as Frederick (Russell Whitehead) could ever hope to escape. Surprisingly (since I thought everyone was going to camp it up), Holmes was basically doing a very straight job of playing this comic character. (As an aside I thought Mr. Holmes was gorgeous, but I could see by Victorian standards he might not have cut the mustard – not that the aesthetic issues of “men in skirts” kept Frederick from swooning over all the other girls in the next scene.) Frederick himself was also played without irony, which is practically necessary as half the comedy in the character is laughing at how rigid and literal he is – without it, the plot can’t move forward.

Then it was a quick switcheroonie off stage and suddenly the pirates were all back in white skirts and neck ribbons (and plimsoles) and voila we had our maidens! I loved seeing the cast in both roles like this – it added to the comedy – and they actually did a fair job of falsetto singing. Gloriously, lead girl Mabel (Adam Ellis) had a strong high voice that was verging on a counter-tenor. Ellis positively blasted Mabel’s lines out, most appropriately considering he had about 12 other maidens to sing over at times! (Ellis unfortunately didn’t have the clarity of tone that might have come from, well, being a girl, or perhaps actually being operatically trained, but I had no problems with suspension of disbelief as he put the character out well and was a good singer.)

This leaves the question (in terms of leads) of our Major General – a very important role! – and when Fred Broom came onto the stage with his mustache drawn on I about popped a gut. He was the spitting image of my friend Marcus. And of course he sang well – I have just come to expect it from the Union. He managed both gravitas and a quivering lower lip – and he really was a hoot, and darned pleasant to listen to, really doing justice to the role.

But of all of the characters, it was the policemen who just did me in. Instead of the fairly representative costuming of the pirates and girls, for the policemen the costume designer apparently went right for the Dali (or perhaps Magritte) school of costume design – the men (who further whittled down the ranks of the Pirates, briefly confusing me that this was actually a plot point, that Frederick had recruited his former pirate friends to work as constables, thus meaning they had no one to arrest) carried mustaches on sticks to show that they were law enforement officials. They continued holding on to them while they fought the pirates, including when they were on their backs or stomachs with the pirates sitting on them. At one point, they were grinning hysterically behind their cardboard facial hair and I was about losing it because they were kind of freaking me out. It was genius, really.

Oddly enough, I couldn’t remember having seen this show before – though I was sure I must have, but there was something about dumping all of the actors in my lap (more or less) and eliminating the set (well, there were some curtains and a rope) cut out all of the grounding references for me – and anyway, 1998 was a long time ago! Furthermore, I was confused because I could remember several of the songs (besides “Modern Major General”) referenced elsewhere, though God knows where I heard “How Beautifully Blue the Sky” (I remember “With Cat-like Tread” from Annex Theater in Seattle).

The thing is, in this intimate space, I could hear and understand pretty much every word that came out of the actors’ mouths, a critical thing for G&S. On big stages, the words get lost, and losing even 20% is a real problem in following along. But at the Union I could see the actors speaking, and when I couldn’t understand just by listening (if I were, say, distracted by something silly going on toward the rear of the stage), watching would shape it right up. That means that even for the patter songs I was able to laugh at almost every joke. And this made it practically a new show for me – not bad for a production that’s well over 100 years old.

A lot of what made this show so lively, though, was the staging. From the suggestive way Ruth fed a carrot to the Major General’s pushbroom hobby horse to the spankings to the extremely lewd fondling of one of the “maidens” by her pirate captors, the cast took advantage of one opportunity after another to make this play fun to watch as well as to listen to. I think G&S dies by its chorus, rather than its leads, and Pirates had everything to be proud of in terms of providing full-stage action.

Based on the number of times I looked over and saw the rather poorly W laughing his face off, I think we can consider this show a success. It helps that Pirates is a funny, witty show with a fantastic libretto; but Union made a show that too often seems dusty as a pharaoh’s tomb genius, with an energetic cast that paid attention to the bones of the show while having a great time playing with the presentation. I’m glad I rushed to see it in its first week, because chances are, like every other musical the Union Theatre has put on, this is going to be another sell out. Nice job, guys!

(Pirates continues at the Union Theatre through August 8th. For more information on this show, please see the Boise State Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, which includes all of the lyrics and tons of other supporting material.)