Young Vic brings `Iolanthe' new life

Music Review

July 16, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Is there possibly a place, in 2002, for a Victorian operetta that ends with a bubbly chorus of "Everyone is now a fairy"?

Of course there is. Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe may seem, at first glance, like a rather tiresome example of the famed duo's output, what with its nutty mix of mortals, semi-mortals, supernatural beings - and peers of the realm, a species unto themselves. But, as the Young Victorian Theatre Company is demonstrating, there's a lot of mileage - comical and musical - left in this 1882 concoction.

Although it lacks the satirical edge of some G&S classics, not to mention the clever plot and taut pacing of the best, Iolanthe holds its own.

To begin with, there's the score. Sullivan hit quite a peak here, pouring out an extraordinary stream of stick-in-the-ear tunes and prismatic orchestrations. The overture alone is of unusually high value, especially since it's the only one of his he actually composed.

Every character, and group of characters, gets a defining musical portrait, from the "dainty little fairies" who occasionally sound more like elephants, to the members of the House of Lords who strut their stuff for the benefit of "ye lower middle classes." The Lord Chancellor, the ill-fated lovers Phyllis and Strephon, the Queen of the Fairies, Iolanthe (Strephon's fairy mother) and even the bit part of Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards all gain engaging qualities just from Sullivan's music.

This is not to slight Gilbert's libretto, which gets in some still-amusing lines and plenty of wordplay while working its creaky way to a denouement. (And let's face it. Thanks to a connotation Gilbert presumably never imagined, there's bound to be an extra laugh out of such exchanges as this - Phyllis: "Then I suppose you're a fairy?" Strephon: "I'm half a fairy." Phyllis: "Which half?")

Director Roger Brunyate demonstrates genuine appreciation of the original comic potential in the dialogue, as well as the possibilities for milking it in fresh ways.

Occasional contemporary references have been inserted into the text, sometimes to cute effect (as when one of the fairies tosses in a Valley Girl's "Duh!?" or the sleep-starved Lord Chancellor appears with a Scooby-Doo pillow), sometimes with the trace of a thud (including several references to local politicos).

Brunyate has the action flowing quite smoothly and charmingly on the restricted space of the Bryn Mawr School's Centennial Hall; there's a respectful air of G&S tradition about his staging and simple scenic design, as well as Mary Bova's costumes. The director gets a mostly assured, lively response from the Young Vic troupe, which, as usual, mixes fairly seasoned performers with amateurs (but the kind who give amateurism a good name).

Also providing effective guidance is conductor J. Ernest Green. During Saturday night's opening performance, he may have missed a few subtle points in the score, but he kept the momentum chugging nicely and built climactic points with delightful brio. Except for the occasional patchy spot (the recurring, galumphing fugue associated with the Lord Chancellor proved particularly slippery), the small orchestra did spirited, vibrant work.

Amy Cofield's sweetly sung Phyllis was a boon. So was Ryan de Ryke's vocally sensitive, theatrically nimble turn as Strephon.

As the Lord Chancellor, German-born Nimrod Weisbrod faced some unavoidable problems with Gilbert's oh-so-British lines (especially the tongue-twisting aria "When You're Lying Awake"). But firm, colorful singing and abundant theatrical flair made him a thoroughly winning presence.

The title role was affectingly sung by Sarah Blaskowsky. Catrin Rowenna Davies did a smooth vocal turn as the Queen of the Fairies. Nicely pointed phrasing came from James Rogers (Lord Mountararat), William Martin (Lord Tolloller) and Christopher Douglas Rhodovi (Private Willis). At their best, the male and female choruses produced a hearty sound and carried out their respective shtick in good form.

Iolanthe

Where: Centennial Hall, Bryn Mawr School, 109 Melrose Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $27, $20 for children 12 and under

Call: 410-323-3077

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