In February 1971, a hearty bunch of teens sang in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" at the Gilman School and enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to try another G&S operetta five months later, this time largely on their own.
The students — most were from Gilman and Bryn Mawr schools in the beginning — called themselves the Gilman Summer Theater and chose as their inaugural venture that July a staging of "Iolanthe," one of the best (if, in this country, underappreciated) of the G&S canon.
Every summer since, the brilliance of Gilbert and Sullivan has been celebrated in energetic fashion by the organization, which, renamed the Young Victorian Theatre Company in 1978 and relocated from Gilman to Bryn Mawr in 1989, steadily became more professional over the years. Now one of the oldest and most consistently stable performing arts institutions in the city, Young Vic opens its 40th anniversary this week with a new production of "Iolanthe."
But first, back to that beginning. High school students eager to sing Gilbert and Sullivan — in 1971, the heyday of countercultural campuses?
"Oh, we were protesting the Vietnam War, too," says Baltimore-born actress Bess Armstrong, a veteran of the company's first "Iolanthe." "But we all had so much fun singing Gilbert and Sullivan. Somehow, it never seemed odd to do."
Once bitten by the show-biz bug, Armstrong and her friends, some of them with "a geeky knowledge" of G&S operettas, weren't about to get vaccinated.
"There were other musical theater companies around, but none that were available to high school students," she says. "We thought that was incredibly unfair. I remember very, very fondly when we were too naïve and too young to be intimidated by the audacious choices we were making. We were 17-year-olds who sat around and said, 'Yeah, let's put on Gilbert and Sullivan.' I commend the adults who said, 'Why not? Give it a try.' "
Armstrong, whose extensive stage, TV and movie credits include the 1990s sitcom "My So-Called Life," brought to the new company a strong musical background.
"In my family, we really did stand around the piano and sing," she says. "None of us could throw a ball, but we could zip into four-part harmony." In "Iolanthe," she sang the role of Phyllis, a maiden in love with a man who is half-fairy (down to the waist) and half-mortal. The actress also provided choreography for the troupe's early productions.
The first "Iolanthe" was "very much Judy Garland- Mickey Rooney, Mom-can-make-the-costumes, let's-put-on-a-show," Armstrong says. "But we had a core group making sure we remained faithful to Gilbert and Sullivan. And it was total immersion. The program was printed in Victorian style; the box office people and ushers dressed in period costume."
An attempt was made to keep things traditional onstage, too.
"Our creed was, don't make a joke about making a joke," Armstrong says. "No smirking or winking at the audience. And it was very, very funny. We saw right away that there was an audience for Gilbert and Sullivan in Baltimore."
Young Vic's 40th anniversary production of "Iolanthe" will look ever so slightly different from the one Armstrong starred in (the Los Angeles-based actress plans to attend one of the opening weekend performances). Stage director James Harp has updated the action of this 1882 operetta to the Roaring Twenties.
" 'Iolanthe' is the most stylish of all Gilbert and Sullivan operettas," Harp says, "and the 1920s was the most stylish decade. The Charleston will figure prominently in the finale."
Gilbert's libretto contains some favorite targets — politicians, lawyers and, especially, peers of the realm. There's also a dash of what might be considered early feminist sympathy within this charming, witty, ultimately quite romantic tale involving fairies and humans. Sullivan's score is fueled by effortless melodic invention and prismatic orchestration.
This "Iolanthe" production, conducted by Young Vic music director Phillip Collister, features several singers who have done shining work for the company in recent seasons, along with some newcomers. Unlike in 1971 and for many years afterward, all the principals in the cast are professionals; the orchestra is also professional. But the chorus invariably includes local high school students as enthusiastic about the world of G&S as the teens who started the company.
Even the briefest visit to a rehearsal reveals the contagious Young Vic spirit.
"It's just great to be involved with this company," says Nicholas Houhoulis, who sings the role of Earl Tolloller in "Iolanthe." "There is such a great camaraderie here. And it's fun to hear people who have been singing in the chorus for 20, 25 years recounting stories about past shows."