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Savoy Company’s ‘Iolanthe’BY: Tom Purdom 05.31.2011
At its 108th annual production, the theoretically amateur Savoy Company demonstrated once again that the enduring appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan is based on qualities that transcend nostalgia.
Savoy Company: Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. Roberta Morrell, artistic director; Dan Rothermel, music director. May 26-27, 2011 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. Also June 10-11, 2011 at Longwood Gardes, Kennett Square, Pa. (215) 735-7161 or www.savoy.org.
Political humor, here and over thereTOM PURDOM
I often think it’s comical
To truly appreciate those lines, you should understand that the key words are pronounced Liberal and Conservat-eye-ve. You should also know that they’re sung in a very deep voice by a deadpan British soldier, complete with red coat and high fur hat, an “intellectual chap” who reflects on the foibles of politicians as he stands guard outside Parliament.
Private Willis’s ruminations opened the second act of Iolanthe, the Savoy Company’s 108th annual production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta since 1901 (the Savoyards skipped three during two World Wars). Commentators sometimes attribute the endurance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas to a persistent case of Victorian nostalgia, but a riff like Private Willis’s soliloquy demonstrates the composers’ true strengths. W.S. Gilbert’s observations are cloaked in genuinely witty word play; Arthur Sullivan’s music always enhances the impact of the words; and their comments on the follies of mankind, however barbed, always seem good-natured.
Amateurs or professionals?
By contrast, contemporary American political humor tends to be mean-spirited and partisan. Gilbert and Sullivan’s jibes at politics and politicians are based on a humane perception that all human institutions possess their share of silliness and absurdity.
Peter Campbell’s flowing bass and droll, impeccably stone face turned Private Willis’s aria into one of the funniest moments of a fun-packed evening, but he wasn’t the only performer who deserved the applause that followed most of the big numbers. The Savoy is supposed to be an amateur company, but most of its soloists sport professional stage credits in their resumés, along with degrees from musical institutions with recognizable names. What’s more, the Savoy’s settings always display a professional gloss.
Grasping for words
My only complaint with this production concerned the costumes that bedecked the fairies. Iolanthe revolves around a conflict between the fairies and the House of Lords, touched off by the romantic impulses of a young shepherd who’s the offspring of a fairy and a human. The Lords looked properly plush in their robes and crowns, but the fairies were cloaked in a sickly, unaesthetic green.
I normally avoid amplified productions, but that’s a necessity in Gilbert and Sullivan performances: If you can’t understand the words, you miss half the reason for being there. Unfortunately, a noticeable percentage of the word play failed to reach this listener’s brain, even with the electronic boosting.
You can always enjoy Sullivan’s music when you can’t grasp the words. But the Savoyards should pay some extra attention to that aspect of their work. The quality of their efforts attains such a high level that their audiences should be able to enjoy every syllable.
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