Maybe I shouldn't be reviewing this, I thought as the overture played for Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, the spring offering of Penn Singers, a theater troupe at Penn. After all, I had been offered a part in the production and lost it—through my own carelessness. With that baggage, could I offer a fair-minded critique?
You see, in January I had e-mailed the Penn Singers to learn the dates of the run. Ashley Catalano-Leckerman, the publicity director, replied and also asked how I had heard of Penn Singers. I told her my family and I had been attending their productions for four decades.
Taking a bow
Ashley's question awakened one of my finest memories: my role as Captain Eyre Massey Shaw in the Penn Singers' 1984 G & S show, Iolanthe. Shaw had been London's fire chief; when Iolanthe opened in London in 1882, one of the characters referred to him in a song and pointed to him, seated in the audience, and he stood and took a bow.
Penn Singers' longtime director, Bruce Montgomery, wanted to re-create that historic detail for his 1984 production. So it came to pass that I, as Shaw, dressed in tuxedo and pince-nez, took a bow from the audience night after night.
"I can't sing a note," I wrote to Ashley, "but I'm a devoted Savoyard, and I figured that experience would be as close as I'll ever get to being "'in' a G & S production, so you can see why I cherish and remember every bit of that bit part."
Ashley forwarded my message to Will Connell, the Penn Singers president. By coincidence, he had just started to look for someone to play the solicitor in Patience— a silent part with some stage business in the Act I finale. Would I be interested?
Unfortunately, I didn't check my e-mail for two weeks, and by the time I replied, Connell had recruited someone else. "I feel terrible about this," he consoled me. "I feel absolutely awful." But I had blown my big chance at the big time.
So there I sat in the audience, with a crushed dream and perhaps a little less objectivity than usual, and the curtain was rising.
Age before beauty
Patience is an exercise in jealousy. Two "art for art's sake" poets are duking it out for the attention of the lovesick maidens, but they really want the love of Patience, the milkmaid. Meanwhile, the Dragoon Guards— formerly the maidens' fiancés— resent the poets. And the aging maiden, Lady Jane, begrudges her companions their youth and beauty.
The Penn Singers carried the whole thing off well. The choruses were lively and intelligible. Bari-tenor Trevor Pierce (Bunthorne) had a seemingly endless array of "aesthetic" gestures and movements. As the odd maiden out, soprano Genna Garofalo stole the show, playing Lady Jane's deficiencies with brash aggressiveness, yet with the pathos of human frailty.
Not in the script
But I really kept a sharp eye out for that solicitor, played by Ed Neely, a Penn Singers alumnus. Well, I told myself, so am I, in a sense.
I must admit that Neely made a dashing presence in his long-tail tuxedo and top hat, sturdy frame, straight posture, rosy cheeks— the very model of Victorian prosperity and lawyerly respectability. And he conducted his business with aplomb.
But then he carried the part one step further: He sang. And when the characters paired off in the Act II finale, he reappeared— this isn't in the script—claimed his maiden, and added his voice to the rich ensemble.
Objectivity, shmobjectivity. I hate this guy.