by Milton W. Hamlin -
SGN A&E Writer
IOLANTHE, OR THE PEER AND THE PERI
BAGLEY WRIGHT THEATRE
Through July 28
The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society counts on fans of campy musicals for key support during its traditional summer production of a G&S classic. Committed to staging all of the works of W.S. Gilbert (the librettist and lyricist) and Arthur Sullivan (the composer), the local Society is world-famous for its dedication to that goal. Few other G&S societies ever attempt the one-act plays Gilbert wrote with no input from Sullivan, or those by Sullivan without Gilbert. (The lifelong feud between these two temperamental artists, who hated each other and tried repeatedly to carve out separate identities, is charmingly chronicled in the 1999 British film Topsy-Turvy.)
This year's selection, Iolanthe, is perhaps the most lavish production Seattle's G&S Society has ever staged. 'We really use smoke and mirrors to enhance our visit to Fairyland,' the welcoming comments pointed out, and that proved true. The opening moments had the audience gasping, magically transported to Fairyland with 2,750 mini-mirror discs cascading from above to create dozens of green, mirrored 'vines' overhead for the fairy forest of Act One. In Act Two, during the Lord Chancellor's nightmare, heavy smoke tells us he is dreaming.
Like most G&S shows, this one begins with a song, 'Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither' (yes, dear reader, it's easy to imagine the choreography), and a long exposition. It seems the fairy Iolanthe was banished years ago for marrying a mortal. Thus shamed, she gives birth to a son, the now-grown Strephon. The other fairies bemoan her absence, while the caustic Queen of the Fairies reminds them that Iolanthe could have been put to death for mixing with mortals in such a manner. But in a rare, forgiving moment, the Queen allows our title heroine to return to her sister fairies.
Meanwhile, the half-fairy, half-mortal Strephon is courting a local shepherdess - the truly lovely Phyllis, who seems to have many admirers in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Will the stunning Phyllis marry Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd who is 'a fairy above the waist and all man below'? Or, will she marry above her station (rarely allowed in Victorian England) and become a rich, titled wife? The entrance of the noblemen - a riot of many-hued, flowing rainbow-colored robes reminiscent of a certain flag that dominates Capitol Hill in late June - was simply spectacular.
In Act Two, we leave the quiet, green joys of Fairyland and go to coal-blackened London circa 1882, where, thanks to a mysterious benefactor (perhaps the father he never knew?), Strephon is now a Member of Parliament. The act opens with a new character, the scene-stealing Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards. In his red uniform and bearskin hat, he stands almost immobile, confidently guarding the Palace - immobile, that is, except when he sings and dances. His eye-rolling, his obvious lust for the fairy maidens, his stereotypically lower-class English Cockney-style accent, and his good nature make him irresistible, both to the maidens and to the audience.
England faces a potential disaster: Every fairy maiden has fallen in love with a rich old Peer, and the politicians return the interest. But - and it is a big 'but' - if a fairy marries a mortal, she will be executed.
'And we will all die of broken hearts,' the men confess (in song, of course). Songs, dances, and plot developments continue, including the smoke-filled nightmare scene. Then the Lord Chancellor has a wonderful idea: he will simply rewrite the law to read, 'Any fairy who does not marry a mortal will die.' He asks no one's permission for the change (adding a word here and there to a law is perfectly normal, it seems).
A delightful curtain call shows all of the Peers sprouting wings from their now-consummated marriages - an expensive, quick-change moment that's worth every penny as the audience spontaneously leapt to its feet, cheering and clapping along to the exit music.
The entire company was excellent, with special praise for Alyce Rogers' nasty-but-redeemed Queen of the Fairies, Rachel Brinn's fine Iolanthe, John Brookes' soaring vocals as Strephon, Hayley Gaarde's thrilling trill-a-minute soprano exploits as Phyllis (Kathryn Grayson lives, methought), James Caspers' perfectly proper scene-stealing as Private Willis, and - a tradition since 1979 - the incredible work of Seattle's 'Patter King,' Dave Ross. Direction by Christine Goff, musical direction by Bernie Kwiram, production supervision by Mike Storie, and technical work from the set designers, costume designers, and lighting and sound crews are all first-rate. Iolanthe might not be Gilbert & Sullivan's most popular operetta, but this production rates five stars out of five. Highest recommendation.
Iolanthe continues its summer weekend run with evening and matinee performances this weekend and next. The Society performs at Seattle Center's Bagley Wright Theatre, home to the Seattle Repertory Theatre. (Be advised that the Bite of Seattle will also be happening this weekend, so parking may be a challenge. Buses, however, will make extra trips.)
Founded in 1954, the Seattle G&S Society has won numerous major production and performance awards, including multiple honors at the world-famous International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in England. For information on tickets, Society membership, donations, e-mail lists, etc., call (206) 682-0796 or visit www.pattersong.org.
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