Very model of a G&S company

SUN JOURNAL

Operettas: A talented and dedicated troupe in a tiny Maine town presents world-class productions of Gilbert and Sullivan works, year after year.

July 14, 2000|By Myron Beckenstein | Myron Beckenstein,SUN STAFF

ELLSWORTH, Maine - Under a darkening Maine sky, Gilbert and Sullivan live again, if ever so briefly.

Since the famed D'Oyle Carte Opera Company folded in England almost 20 years ago, America seems to have become a hot spot for Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

And nowhere may the performances be better than in tiny Ellsworth, Maine, population 6,000, whose company went to England in 1994 for the First International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival.

Shunning "The Mikado" and "HMS Pinafore," the company performed the rarely presented "Utopia Unlimited" and came away with the festival's top prize.

This would be quite an accomplishment for a company that has a wide pool of talent, a hefty budget and many performances.

But the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Hancock County offers one play a year and that for only nine performances, six in a Maine winter, three in July.

Now in its 24th year, the society has presented 12 of the 13 presentable Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The duo wrote another, "Thespis," but most of its musical score has been lost somewhere along the way. The local group presented a choral version of Gilbert & Sullivan's final effort, "The Grand Duke," four years ago.

This year's offering, which opened its three-night stand yesterday, is "The Sorcerer," written in 1877 and involving modified rapture, a magic potion and the other Gilbert and Sullivan staple, as much confusion as possible.

This is the second time the society has done "The Sorcerer," and many members of cast and crew were in the original effort 10 years ago. The company has found a way to keep renewing itself with a steady mixture of proven talent and new faces.

The combination holds true even in the director's positions, the only two paying jobs in the company. Dede Johnson has been artistic director for 12 years; this is Fredric Goldrich's first year as musical director.

Their backgrounds are varied too. Johnson was a performer who became a member of the committee looking for a new director and found herself in the job. "Scary, terrifying," she recalled.

In her other life, she has a needlepoint business and takes care of foster children. She also is involved with another cast at the moment, the green-covered one on her broken leg that has her directing from a wheelchair.

Musical director Goldrich actually has a background in music, the past 20 years as a classical orchestra conductor in the New York City area. He moved to Maine last year and now is living "the dream of a lifetime."

But to add another element to the mix, he also has a Ph.D. in physics.

It also takes costumes and scenery to make a world-class production, and the society manages to squeeze both out of its small budget.

We "borrow, rent or make" the costumes, said Lee Patterson, a former president of the company and a longtime performer. Before retiring to Mount Desert Island, he ran a boys' camp in York, Pa., for many years.

Last year he was Angelina's lawyer in "Trial by Jury" (part of a twin bill along with "Pinafore"); this year he is in the chorus and enjoying it just as much.

Anyone who joins the society is able to try out for a role. The principals also are picked from the ensemble, all local talent - doctors, nurses, teachers (math and music) and one would-be professional juggler.

Director Johnson said making the lead audition choices is the hardest part of her job, not because she has so little talent to choose from but because she has so much.

It is not unusual for this year's leads to be in next year's chorus, so more people get a chance and keep their interest high - another juggling act.

This is important when rehearsals start weekly in October and then pick up after a Christmas break until the February performances. Then, hoping too much hasn't been forgotten and too many cast members are not unavailable, rehearsals start again in June for the mid-July shows.

One thing the cast and crew agree on is Johnson's talent as a director. "Gilbert and Sullivan is hard to direct," said Goldrich, but Johnson has a distinctive feel for the works.

"She directs for the performance, not for her self-image," says Irv Hodgkin, who plays the old notary in "The Sorcerer."

He should know. He has been with the company since 1982 and has sung in all the G&S operettas but one. John M. Cunningham, the play's vicar, believes he holds the record for the number of singing roles with the company - 17.

One thing the company members can't agree on is their favorite G&S operetta. Seldom is the choice one of the better-known plays, such as "HMS Pinafore," "The Mikado" or "Pirates of Penzance."

Even David Blanchette, the current company president, and his wife, Sandra, the current secretary, don't agree. He likes "Pirates." She likes "Ruddigore."

Theirs is a G&S romance. They met when she joined the company 15 years ago, two years after he did, for the production of "Iolanthe." Twice in the years since, they have been cast opposite each other.

Babette Gwynn, the production manager, from Chestertown, Md., said her favorite operetta was "whichever one we currently are working on - it changes annually."

The company numbers fewer than 50 people - it is smaller for the summer season - and under Goldrich the orchestra has grown to about 30 pieces.

Listen to them talk and you would think they love the company and their work. Watch them perform and you know they must.

After all the effort and time, a select audience of about 1,600 people will get to see their show over its three-night run this week.

When the curtain comes down, they already will be looking ahead to next year and "The Pirates of Penzance" - coincidentally, the one Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Hodgkin has yet to do.

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