Lawyers get their lumps from Gilbert and Sullivan

But an attorney at Young Vic doesn't mind a bit.

Classical Music

July 07, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

My learned profession I'll never disgrace by taking a fee with a grin on my face," sings the Lord Chancellor, Britain's chief legal authority, in Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe, "when I haven't been there to attend to the case."

Quite a few such lawyer jokes, 1882-style, spice Iolanthe. And that's just fine with Brian S. Goodman. He tackles malpractice cases by day as a member of the Fedder and Garten law firm, and revels in Gilbert and Sullivan by night as general manager of the Young Victorian Theatre Company.

That company, a popular fixture on Baltimore's summer cultural season since 1971, is marking Goodman's silver anniversary at the helm this summer. He's actually been a part of the troupe longer; he sang in the annual Gilbert and Sullivan productions for three years before taking the top post.

Young Vic was based at the Gilman School back then. Goodman was a 14-year-old student there when he first experienced the company and works by the definitive operetta team.

"I had never heard of Gilbert and Sullivan," he says, "and I didn't appreciate it right away. That didn't happen until later."

His first experience, Young Vic's inaugural production of The Mikado, left enough of an impression that he willingly stepped up when the organization needed a manager in 1977. By that point, Goodman was at Johns Hopkins University on the road to a law degree, which he subsequently earned from the University of Maryland.

"In high school, I loved acting and singing, and I had the dream of going into the theater," he says. "But my father preferred that I be practical."

Goodman, 45, has no regrets. "I like what I do," he says. "Lawyers get a bad rap, but most of the ones I know are ethical."

And busy. Goodman has "a huge trial" coming up on Aug. 5, causing considerable stress, but he still manages to be on hand night after night as the Young Vic rehearses Iolanthe for Saturday's opening night at Bryn Mawr School. And throughout the year, he manages to find time to tend to administrative and fund-raising duties.

Under his watch, with the help of a small, loyal corps of patrons, the company has grown from an $8,500 budget (for two productions a summer) to its current $80,000 (for one). And Goodman oversaw a campaign to provide the Young Vic an endowment for the first time; it's now $200,000.

Goodman has a new vested interest in the company - his 9-year-old daughter has joined the children's chorus. Passing on an enthusiasm for Gilbert and Sullivan comes easily to the general manager.

"The longer I ran this company, doing the same shows over and over, I would wonder why I don't get sick of them," Goodman says. "It's because they are so witty and clever, and the music is so wonderful.

"I think one reason some people hate Gilbert and Sullivan is that they only heard it performed at summer camp, with everyone out of tune, and a little piano for accompaniment. When you have a 25-piece orchestra and real opera singers onstage performing, it's incredible."

Getting used to G&S

For the uninitiated, Arthur Sullivan's alternately bouncy and elegant music might seem a little too quaint today, while W. S. Gilbert's rhymes and barbs might seem more dated or dense than deft.

But once on the G&S wavelength, it's hard to get off of it. That's true even for Americans, who, as Oscar Wilde observed, have everything in common with the English - except the language.

"A lot of Gilbert's wit is not confined to the British," Goodman says.

In addition to lobbing good-natured jibes at the legal profession, Gilbert spears a favorite target of British humor, the House of Lords, in Iolanthe.

"When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte," sings the character of Lord Mountararat, "as every child can tell, the House of Peers, throughout the war, did nothing in particular, and did it very well."

This Parliamentary peerage still makes a tempting target, though it might not strike a chord with every audience.

"Even in England, people are out of touch with the House of Lords," says Roger Brunyate, who is directing Iolanthe, his seventh Young Vic production. "And there isn't really a concept of an aristocracy here. So I don't think people necessarily get the specific parodies and satire. But on another level, the idea that the peers are useless or rather stupid - we all know stupid people. We can all relate to that."

It's one thing relating to the peers, who are, more or less, human. But what of the other species that floats through Iolanthe - the fairies? Not to mention poor Strephon, who is half-man/half-fairy. ("He's a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal.")

Well, a little fantasy never hurt any operetta. And, besides, as Brunyate says, "Enough of what Gilbert and Sullivan do is in the basic theatrical tradition, things that have worked for a long time and still work."

Brunyate, artistic director of the Peabody Opera Theatre, also notes the unexpected moments of seriousness that turn up in the midst of Iolanthe's otherwise comic doings.

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