Saturday, July 17, 2010

G&S do the Charleston

In the Young Victorian Theatre Company's production of Iolanthe, Gilbert and Sullivan's tale of fairyland meets the Jazz Age.
The operetta's gossamer plot concerns the problems deriving from the illict marriage between a fairy, Iolanthe (Madelyn Wanner) and a too human Lord Chancellor (Troy Clark). Their part-human, part-fairy son, Strephon (Jeffrey Williams) desires to marry Phyllis (Sara Kete Walston), a ward of the Lord Chancellor. Alas, the taboos of fairyland and the laws of parliament forbid the marriage. After a great deal of gauzy nonsense concerning fairy solidarity, parliamentary corruption, and the changing-of-the-guard, boy finally gets girl and the bevy of newly engaged fairies and peers can trot off to a honeymoon in Fairyland.
Under the artistic direction of James Harp, this Victorian tale is transplanted to the 1920s. The stylish Art Deco set, the flapper costumes, the hip flasks, the silent-film conventions, and the hints of the Charleston provide a charming frame for the evening. Walston makes a delightful Mary Pickford coquette and Alexis Tantau (Queen of the Fairies) makes a commanding vamp. But when the director alters the lyrics and book of W.S. Gilbert to include anachronistic 1920s slang, the production sags. The sag becomes a collapse when Harp inexplicably "updates" the material to make references to current politics. What do Obama, Arundel Mills, Robert de Niro, and the hapless John Edwards have to do with Iolanthe? What do they even have to do with the Roaring Twenties? Nothing. Such gimmicks only cheapen an otherwise professional production.
The musical end of the production provides higher values. Under Phillip Collister's direction, the impressive orchestra provides a clear and sensitive account of Arthur Sullivan's score. The different textures of the score (lyrics, patter songs, satires, pleas) are faithfully evoked by the well-disciplined ensemble. Wanner, Waltson, Tantau, and Williams bring fine voices and carefully sculpted interpretations to their respective characters.
The Young Vic's production of Iolanthe generates some charming fairy dust in its handsomely sung version of G&S, but its gratuitous gadgets indicate that Sullivan actually knew what he was doing when he wrote the original libretto.

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