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The Trumpet Bray

August 2004

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THESPIS AT MIT: FOL DIDDLE, LOL DIDDLE, LOL LOL LAY! So I went out singing after seeing MIT's production of THESPIS --and I've been assured by cast members that they can't stop singing it, either! That was the refrain of the "Train Song" ("I once knew a chap") that was a highlight of this highly amusing production.

What I liked best was the troupe of actors played by a troupe of actors, with a rich and dense network of relationships linking them all. I saw the show twice, and there was much more going on than I could take in. Whenever two members of Thespis's troupe were near each other, there was an interaction worth watching. This all came together wonderfully in the train song. While Thespis, over the course of five long verses, told the tale of "the gentleman who undermined his influence by associating with his inferiors", the rest of the group by twos and threes formed a train which grew ever more elaborate, with engine, caboose, whistle, passengers reading the newspaper and drinking tea, etc. When the train was sent down "to the wilds of Barking" the troupe appropriately howled and yipped. And when the experiment went bust, the group slowed down, collapsed, and dissolved. Throughout, Andrew Sweet as Thespis related the tale with impeccable diction, concluding each verse with an amusing set of gestures for the "North South East West Diddlesex Junction", and a grapevine step and salute ("Fol diddle, lol diddle") that took him the width of the stage.

The music for this production was written by Colin Johnson, with the obvious exceptions of "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain" and "Little Maid of Arcadee". Orchestration and music direction were by Todd Neal. I liked a lot of the new music, but there were problems. The opening chorus, "Throughout the Night" (sung by the Chorus of Stars) was written with overlapping lines so that it was impossible to hear the words. The situation was even worse with Mercury's two patter songs, "Oh, I'm the celestial drudge"--a cute quirky piece in a minor key-- and the non-memorable "Olympus is now in a terrible muddle." Tracy Hammond was charming in her role and did her best to enunciate, but it was impossible to project the words in that low vocal register over the orchestration. As the Act II patter song is crucial to explaining what has happened--and there was a huge amount of stage business--this was a serious loss. While the orchestra did fine during the show, the performance of the overture both times I went was really weak. The overture itself seemed flabby, with "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain" appearing twice and the music then dawdling on interminably after an apparent crashing conclusion.

There was also a lot I like about the stage direction, by David Jedlinsky. He evidently followed Thespis's maxim of allowing the group to "experiment", so I don't know how many of the innumerable excellent bits were invented by him. For example, at the end of Act I, Randi Kestin, as the reformed alcoholic Tipseion, displayed horror at finding that the only symbol of office left on tray was Bacchus's grapes. Len Giambone as Sparkeion reveled throughout Act II in his ability as Deputy Apollo to make the spotlight go on and off--and then found with crushing disappointment in the Finale that he had lost his touch. And Sheldon Brown as Preposteros climbed down from his towering rage upon being offered a grape by a fellow picnicker. But occasionally the staging was odd. During "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain", both Rebecca Burstein as Prolixia and Sonya Tang as Daphne sang their solos exquisitely while standing at the edge of the stage, rather than to their colleagues who were filling the stage behind them. And in a social environment in which one could barely kiss one's wife on the cheek before the marriage ceremony was complete, it was strange to see Sparkeion and Daphne cuddling voluptuously in the midst of the revelers. Similarly, the costumes were generally excellent, with the striking exception of that of Diana, an Aged Deity. The Victorian piquancy of seeing a young lady in tights as Mercury was undercut by the appearance of Mary Finn in an extremely skimpy (and unbecoming) tunic, so that her lower limbs were not only visible, but completely bare. [Um... Nancy... I suspect that was the point! - oh, and We thought Mary’s legs looked quite good! - mlc]

The tall slenderness of Ashley Kim as Nicemis made her a wonderful visual as well as vocal complement to the likewise tall and slender Sparkeion. It was a pleasure to see the two of them stroll together arm-in-arm. The other members of this ensemble likewise filled their roles, great and small, with fun and pleasure--Rishi Basu as the doddering Jupiter, Ion Freeman as the superannuated buck Apollo, Robert Morrison as the irascible Mars, Nick Bozard as the "dear old thing" Sillimon, Bradley Timmers as the pusillanimous Timidon/Deputy Mars, Noelani Kamelamela as the mischievous Stupidas, Sarah Pearcey as the frustrated Pretteia/Deputy Venus, Brie Frame as the very young Cymon/Deputy Father Time, and Deputy Vulcan Matthew Morse, Deputy Thalia Jesse Sullivan, and Deputy Minerva Kendell Timmers. Well done, MITGASP!

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IOLANTHE AT HRG&SP - Review The First IOLANTHE AT H-RG&S: Review The First

There were some incredible moments in Harvard-Radcliff's IOLANTHE.

The Harvard-Radcliff G&S is going through lean times at the moment. Upcoming finals may be forcing many of them to concentrate on other things. They have no dearth of talent, but IOLANTHE had a slim crew.

The set was simple: a curving ramp running from downstage right to upstage left, suggesting not much of anything; exits downstage right, downstage left, and upstage right (the stream); simple stippled patterns on the floor suggesting a stream bed. The set did work well. Everyone got on and off without difficulty.

Costumes: HR has rarely been top-notch in costumes. The Fairies wore a mix of costumes, one in pants, three in a variety of dresses, none really suggesting Fairies- more 17th Century peasants. Iolanthe wore a full-length blue gown. The Queen wore a yellow gown suggesting Elizabeth I. The Lords wore business suits. Strephon wore street clothes, as if he had just come in from work. Phyllis wore several changes of everyday dresses.

Phyllis/Strephon and L ChancellorMusic: The music had some surprises in tempos. It's good not to be a slave to some favorite recordings, to try something different. This show scored about 70-30. Some songs worked, some were strained. During the first act finale, someone decided they should
the lines. The pauses and stops robbed the song of its power and force.

Acting: Daniel Spitzer (Lord Chancellor) sang his swan song before heading to England. He gave his all to his role, just as he did as Pooh-Bah and J. Wellington Wells. (Could still use an acting coach, but he's improving.)

My biggest complaint about the acting concerns body language. Strephon must display confidence. His dialogue compels it. Our young Strephon shows none at all. Lord Tollerer bends and sways at the waist like the servile usher making excuses. Mountararat also bends at the knees and shoulders. As each sang they would pace in small circles, believing that if they weren't moving nothing was happening. The other three Lords stand erect, but that's all they did.

The responsibility lies with the Director, who made some other mystifying choices. As the Fairies started "Don't go!," all the Lords just stood there. Not a twitch. Not a move. Wasn't the Director aware of the words? How can you sing "Don't go" to someone who isn't going anywhere? "Don't go" was the only song that drew no applause. Even stranger: "Fare thee well, attractive stranger" cut directly to "The law is the true embodiment." THEY CUT "TRUMPET BRAY"! The signature piece of the first act. Imagine Marriage of Figaro without "Non Piu Andrai." Granted there were only five Lords and the Lord Chancellor, so he may have cut it for lack of voices. Strephon and Private Willis were available to sing offstage to add volume. Cutting "Trumpets" was an extreme choice. The Lords came on stage without establishing who they were.

On the other hand, a lot of the staging worked well. For "Dignified and Stately" they marched in circles around Strephon and Phyllis, and carried Phyllis offstage. Simple but funny.

Singing: The best part of the show. Spritzer sang the patter songs with ease. For all his annoying gyrations, Tollerer had a fine voice, as did Mountararat. The cast sang with amazing clarity.

Private Willis was dressed in camouflage fatigues, and moved like a go-go dancer doing the macarena. The strangest Willis I've ever seen, but he carried it.

I would have asked Johanna Karlin (Fairy Queen) to tone down a bit until I saw the last act. What at first seemed loud and brassy was burlesque. ("Don't ye know that it is DEATH!!! marry a mortal?") She played vampy to Private Willis, and then sang Captain Shaw directly to the bassoon player, with the Fairies, to the delight of the audience.

Her business with the law scroll, -- reach into bosom, pull feather, another feather, pack of lozenges, pop one into mouth, then pull scroll-- was hilarious.

In all, not HRG&S' best show, but the audience was well satisfied. My friend's two daughters had never seen a G&S before. They were impressed.


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IOLANTHE AT HARVARD, Review the Second: I don't know if you're looking for a review of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players' production of IOLANTHE at the Agassiz Theatre, which they put on [in April], but I happened to be in town on the ninth and so was able to take in that performance.

The HRG&S Players are an experienced howbeit amateur group, so that I expected the performance to be considerably more polished than it was.

My main criticisms fall into four categories. First, the set. It was a bit curious, very green (which is appropriate for the first act) with several tall green stalks, each topped with a small, illuminated hexagon, whose significance, if it had one, was lost on me. A small dais at stage right carried a chair from which the Fairy Queen pontificated at intervals in the first act and which served as a stand (no box) for Private Willis in the second.

That's right, there was no change of scene for the second act despite a protracted intermission. No Big Ben, no facade of the Houses of Parliament, nothing to indicate that we are now to be, not in an Arcadian glade but in the Westminster Palace yard. The Agassiz Theatre is an old house, so that I don't know how much is available back stage for set changing, but let's face it, IOLANTHE is not one of the operas (such as PINAFORE, which is often put on by impecunious parties for that very reason) that can do with the same set in both acts.

And then there were the costumes. For some reason some person in authority, I don't know who, very likely Director Hector Garza, decided to do the show in modem dress. Now that's an often-made election, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. In this case, at least for a traditionalist such as myself, it didn't.

I didn't really realize what was going on when the fairies tripped in in an assortment of fluffy but nondescript costumes, but when Strephon (Michael Moss) appeared in a rather disreputable T-shirt hanging out over jeans, I found it hard to believe he was an Arcadian shepherd. Maybe that's how Arcadian shepherds dress these days, if indeed we still have Arcadian shepherds, but I was bothered by it to the point of being distracted from his otherwise competent performance.

Phyllis (Lisa Lareau) came in wearing a nice little dress (at least she wasn't in slacks!), but although she presented a most attractive picture, it was also hard to think of her as a shepherdess.

The peers (all five of them) were in business attire (although one of them sported a very British sweater under his jacket), and the Lord Chancellor was also in business clothes -- no wig or robe for him any more than we had the traditional ermine-trimmed costumes for the peers. I suppose that's what these gentry wear now when not on state occasions, and I believe it is common practice for the Lord Chancellor to appear in pajamas, as in this case, for his "lying awake with a dismal headache" song, and so I suppose I could put up with that.

The real disaster, however, was Private Willis (Marcus Wang) appearing on his stand in army fatigues. Now come on, modern dress or no, even in this day and age a grenadier guardsman on duty before the Houses of Parliament does not wear fatigues. This substitution for the traditional uniform with red coat and busby was a real shocker, and as he's standing there for a good portion of the second act, it detracted a lot from the show's appeal for me.

I should add, however, that there were at least two instances of characters being properly garbed. One was the Fairy Queen (Johanna Sue Karlin), who wore a magnificent full-skirted golden gown and looked every inch a queen. I have often held that the standard contralto characters such as the Fairy Queen and Katisha shouldn't be made too unattractive despite the references to their less than desirable appearance. Ms Karlin was sufficiently padded so that references to curling herself inside a buttercup and not objecting to stoutness in moderation drew the expected laughs, but I thought she nevertheless looked great and that Private Willis shouldn't feel at all inconvenienced at the prospect of marrying her.

Another splendid example was Iolanthe (Celia Maccoby, who was to me the star of the show), who appeared in a full ball gown, in which she remained for both acts, only a few drapes of seaweed being removed from her upon her entrance. And, yes, I was relieved to see Strephon appear in decent clothing when he accedes to being an MP and Phyllis in an evening dress as countess, even though we are not aware of what.

Another serious criticism of this production, at least to my way of thinking, is that the director fell into the trap that I believe has caught many directors -- that of treating a Gilbert-and-Sullivan opera as farce. To me, the jokes and satire come across in a much more effective manner if they're played absolutely straight-faced with a minimum of stage business. [In fact, Gilbert was quoted as preferring that style - mlc] In my opinion, this production featured much too much stage business. For example, the very proper howbeit self-made Lord Chancellor has no reason to perform a rather silly little dance routine (ineffectively imitated afterwards by Strephon) at the end of each verse of his "When I went to the bar as a very young man" song, and as if Private Willis's costume wasn't bad enough, his performing a series of contortionist wiggles each time he sang that "nature always does contrive," etc., was simply ludicrous. Moreover, the Fairy Queen, despite looking and singing well, was apparently instructed to scream the word "death" at the audience in a most unladylike manner whenever it occurred. Thus when reading from the fairy law scroll (which she extracted with exaggerated difficulty from her bosom after first littering the stage with various odd items that got pulled out ostensibly by mistake), she announced, somewhat paraphrasing the original script, "The penalty for marrying a mortal is [turn to audience, open mouth wide, and scream] DEATH!!!" Yes, it got a desultory laugh, but I found it very off-putting.

I should now make some comment on the musical rendition, but as I am not enough of a musician to pass judgment on individual voices, suffice it to say that the singing was all highly competent. This was aided by a superb orchestra, which did a great job on the overture (although I might have picked up the tempo a bit, especially at the beginning) and continued to give the singers just the right support throughout the show. But here comes the unkindest cut of all, and I do mean cut. Believe it or not, according to the conductor (who had vainly hoped nobody would notice until I queried him about this at intermission), that same person in authority apparently decided to cut, of all things, the peers' entering march! I couldn't believe it! No loudly let the trumpet bray! No tantantara, tzing boom! No bow, ye lower middle classes! No peers of highest station! When, after Strephon and Phyllis go off, nothing happened until I was suddenly aware that the orchestra was playing the introduction to the Lord Chancellor's song and that worthy straggled in with the five peers, I wondered if I'd fallen asleep and missed part of the show. The conductor, who did a superior job leading the orchestra but whose name I didn't catch (He may have been Matt Corriel, who was listed as Music Director in the interesting but peculiar program.), told me the decision was based on there being only five peers, so that a stately procession might have looked ridiculous. Nevertheless, they tried to have one when exiting to "Though our hearts she's badly bruising," but this lost some of its impact because the preceding entrance had been omitted. I wouldn't have seen a problem with only five peers, especially as there were only four fairies. I forget what they did with the extra man at the end, probably because I was watching to see whether everybody would sprout wings in the traditional manner. They didn't, and I left the theatre somewhat disappointed, as noted above.

However, far be it from me to disparage, not a humble foremast lad, but a superior group of New England Gilbert-and-Sullivan players. Certainly I was delighted to have attended.

Most sincerely,

a.k.a. Senex Senior

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- The Andover Phillips Academy’s PIRATES in May?

- The second Bruce I. Miller memorial concert at Holy Cross? It was on April 30 2004, featuring a presentation of choral music to the college by Ronald Broude (of Broude Brothers Ltd.)

- The Savoyard Light Opera Company’s Aug 1 concert, "5/29/1911 - A Gilbert & Sullivan Fantasy"?

- Gilbert’s play Engaged, at the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, NYC, in May?

New England Light Opera’s 2nd Annual Summer Concert Series: July 21st: Gilbert and Sullivan Night?

Tell Us, tell us all about it! - mlc

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