Young Vic does yeoman service Preview: Romantic, melodramatic and, in the end, downbeat, 'The Yeomen of the Guard' was considered by Gilbert and Sullivan their best work.

June 30, 1996|By Jeff Landaw | Jeff Landaw,SUN STAFF

"The Yeomen of the Guard," which opens the Young Victorian Theatre Company's summer season Saturday at Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School, is unique among W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's 14 comic operas.

The plot is melodramatic but not deliberately absurd, and the theme is romantic rather than satirical. Sullivan's score is darker than usual, and the piece ends on a downbeat note as Jack Point, the strolling jester, loses the girl he loves. In 1941, the music critic Deems Taylor wrote that "Yeomen" didn't completely satisfy because it was "a grand opera written in terms of operetta."

That's part of the challenge, says Brian Goodman, the Young Vic's general manager for 19 years. Noting that Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular works are "The Mikado," which the Young Vic did last year, "H.M.S. Pinafore" and "The Pirates of Penzance," he says, "You can't do that every year. 'Yeomen' is a difficult one to do. We hadn't done it in about 10 years, so it was kind of its turn."

And, he adds, "Gilbert and Sullivan considered it their best work."

By 1888, the year they wrote "Yeomen," Gilbert and Sullivan had been working together regularly for 13 years, and both were ready for a stretch. Gilbert's topsy-turvy plots were starting to wear thin -- "Ruddigore," the partners' previous work, ends with a legal quibble that brings the dead back to life -- and Sullivan felt prodded by the critics and the public, from Queen Victoria on down, to do something more worthy of his talents than light opera. When Gilbert suggested for their next opera one of his perennial ideas -- a plot about a magic lozenge, or pill -- Sulli- van flatly said no.

What Gilbert eventually produced in "Yeomen" -- besides a solid enough plot, set in the Tower of London in the Tudor era -- was Jack Point, a character who, as Audrey Williamson put it in her classic study, "Gilbert and Sullivan Opera," "became of greater importance than hero and heroine and quite possibly, during the course of writing, expanded beyond the bounds of the dramatist's original intentions." Mark McGrath, a Young Vic veteran who will play Jack, says: "It is really one of the defining roles of Gilbert and Sullivan; it's a tremendous challenge for me professionally. In every show that one looks at, you can find almost cookie-cutter-type parts, but the Jack Point role is really, in my experience, unique. He's clever, but he's outwitted; he's funny, but he's sad."

When Jack loses Elsie Maynard, his fellow strolling player, at the final curtain, Gilbert's stage directions have him "fall[ing]

insensible at her feet." Almost since the opera's debut, audiences and scholars have wondered whether Gilbert meant Jack to die. George Grossmith, who first played most of the Gilbert and Sullivan light-baritone roles, was known as a purely comic actor, and he played the final collapse as a faint. But George Thorne and Henry Lytton, in separate provincial touring companies, played it as a death -- and Gilbert wasn't noted for letting actors tamper with his ideas.

"My belief is that he does not die," McGrath says. "Not that any actor would shrink from a scene-consuming death on the stage, but I don't see it that way. I'm not going to play him with a nagging cough or ever-increasing white makeup [as Martyn Green, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's light baritone in the 1930s, '40s and early '50s, used to do]. He doesn't die, but he doesn't get what he wants, which is sad."

Williamson also suggests that Gilbert never meant Elsie to think of Jack as more than a companion, and Danielle Martin, who will play Elsie, says Gary Leard's Young Vic direction will take the same line.

"We're going to play it off that he's a wonderful comic jester and he's always joking, but I never take him seriously," says Martin, a Baltimore native who graduated from the School for the Arts and is entering her senior year at New York's Juilliard School of Music. "I think there's a friendship there, but she would never consider him a mate."

The man who does become Elsie's mate, Colonel Fairfax, may leave her less happy than Jack Point would have done. A prisoner in the Tower, framed on a capital charge of sorcery so that a relative can inherit his estate when he dies unmarried, Fairfax first appears on stage treating death with heroic indifference. But when the plot's gears begin to turn, we see him in a different light.

Disguise

By the end of Act 1, Fairfax has arranged to foil his relative by marrying Elsie, and has also escaped in a plot engineered by a different set of characters. He is now disguised as Leonard Meryll, son of the sergeant of the yeomen of the guard, who has been assigned to the Tower but has not yet arrived. Elsie doesn't recognize him because she was blindfolded at the wedding -- one of several touches Gilbert lifted from Vincent Wallace's "Maritana," then a staple of the English opera world. When Fairfax gets his first real look at Elsie, he decides "to test her principles" by courting her as Leonard Meryll.

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