'Gilbert without Sullivan' Performer: In his one-man production at Howard Community College, Walt Witcover wants to call attention to the lyrics and lesser-known ballads of William S. Gilbert.

November 13, 1997|By Dawn Fallik | Dawn Fallik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The "Ruler of the Queen's Navee" comes clean, or at least clear, in "Innocent Merriment, or Gilbert without Sullivan," a one-man rendition of the works of William S. Gilbert that opens tomorrow at Theatre Outback at Howard County Community College in Columbia.

Walt Witcover, the play's creator and sole performer, said he does not mean to ignore Sir Arthur Sullivan, the other member of the Gilbert and Sullivan team, but wants to draw attention to Gilbert's lyrics and lesser-known ballads -- by speaking them, not singing them. "Ruler of the Queen's Navee" is in "H.M.S. %J Pinafore."

"Sometimes the music is a bit overpowering, and you can't really understand what is being said," Witcover said. "And really, I can't sing very well."

An actor, director and teacher who describes his age as "old enough to know better," Witcover created the Masterworks Laboratory Theatre in New York to help develop fledgling plays, and he coaches students at the Witcover Acting Studio.

A former acting teacher at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a guest director at the University of Maryland, College Park, Witcover also created an acting studio in Baltimore.

Several of his former students helped bring the "Merriment" production to Howard County Community College. This weekend's performance will be the first public production.

Witcover fell in love with Gilbert and Sullivan works while growing up in New York City. He was introduced to theater by his mother, who lectured on the arts, and he joined his high school's Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

Witcover, who has directed many plays since his high school days, said that too many amateurs and not enough professionals are paying attention to what he calls "the great ones."

"Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Lerner and Loewe, they were all good," he said. "But they all learned from Gilbert. He was really the first."

He said the idea of an all-Gilbert play took shape in the summer of 1996 in his New York City loft. At first, Witcover told no one about the idea, and simply started gathering material. He found more than he imagined and initially had 35 characters and a three-hour play when he sat down with director Beverly Bullock in March.

Although Gilbert and Sullivan fans will recognize pieces from their favorite operettas, including "H.M.S. Pinafore" and "The Pirates of Penzance," the play features mostly ballads that Gilbert composed. Witcover said he hopes that by presenting these pieces with wit and humor, audiences will learn to appreciate them.

Modern times sneak into some of the bits. Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" helped Witcover prepare for the character of Yum-Yum as a vain Southern belle who wants to rule Earth as the sun does the sky. Her dulcet tones and preening ways are enhanced by a brimming hat and perfect curls, helping audiences connect with words from a production of the 1880s, Witcover said.

Yum-Yum is one of 24 characters Witcover presents during the two acts, each with his or her own costume, mannerisms and accent. It was a challenge for a man who had not acted for nearly 40 years.

"My mind and my talent and my imagination had been in constant use but my voice and my body, they were a bit behind," he said, adding that he lost his voice when first practicing the piece for friends. Since then, Witcover said, he has taken voice lessons.

Intelligent entertainment is the goal of Witcover's play, but he said he would settle for something much more basic. "It simply should be fun," he said.

The production will be staged at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and 2: 30 p.m. Sunday.

Information: 410-772-4900.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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