April 20-21, 24-27 at the Agassiz
Princess Ida is typical Gilbert and Sullivan, stereotypical in fact. After the play opened at the Savoy in 1884, Sullivan fled to London. From France he declared that his score had a disquieting "family resemblance" to his previous work and that only by abjuring the musical comedy form altogether could he progress as a composer. Gilbert, characteristically less concerned with posterity, was nonetheless so moved by his collaborator's threats and supplications that he put aside the pedestrian libretto on which he was working to write what eventually was produced as the Mikado.
Still, to anyone with an ear for Gilbert and Sullivan, Princess Ida can be a completely delightful evening. Although the production of the show which opened at Agassiz last night failed to achieve even this circumscribed end it was always pleasantly theatrical--if this or any other word can suggest the pagentry which attends the most humble G&S composition.
The main defect is David DeSmit's conspiracy with himself to stifle the show's good spirits. As stage director DeSmit is subdued by the size of the production--"three sets, more than seventy costumes, thirteen leads," the program ballyhoos. In the first act the cast assembles like infantry battalions on a stage hardly ample enough for it under any conditions and made less serviceable by an amorphous grey shrouding which pretends to be the set. Since DeSmit is credited with the scenery this contriction is a failing of conception, not coordination. If his draping was meant to invoke the severity of the Castle Adamant the bastion of femininity rampant which is stormed by player and playwright alike, he succeeded all too well. Somehow he should have devised a symbol which could be put aside when bufoonery called for it.
Choreography becomes mere posturing under such conditions, and for an act and a half there is off-hand posturing indeed. By and By, though, as the plot reduces the storage population and the runways are pressed into use for entrances and exits, the actors manage mobility. Only a few scampers and splits later, unfortunately, the tide rolls back in, and at play's end the chorus is left stranded, so many bunches of pastel seaweed with like possibilities of self-propulsion.
The characters, with the exception of Gilbert's rather savage self-portrait, King Gama, are splendidly familiar. The marshal chorus, sometimes seen as a patrol of bobbies, sometimes as a well-buckled line of officers consists of the three sons of King Gama, Neil Fairbairn, William Baker and Ted Rau: wonderful as a trio of bass clarinets. The expected Friends of the Suitor are played with tolerable alacrity by John B. McKean and David Evitts. As for the suitor himself, Hilarion, his name is, nothing more need be said than that Danius Turek is filling an accustomed role with acustomed accomplishment, to render virtue as assonance.
Jeff Davies is perhaps too vehement as King Gama. But then he is almost alone among the actors in that he is constantly acting, rather than relying on the sheer force of the production to bear him along. Well-matched, his intensity could produce those volleys of humor which mark the best of G&S. Last night he seemed to frighten the rest of the cast.
DeSmit's direction likewise makes it impossible to offer any complete judgement on the actresses. All had admirable voices and most were quite content to confine their performances to careful tuning of the vocal apparatus. In another production Susan Larson as the Princess might have been called on to exercise the comic talents which she hinted at. Jacqueline Meily, the scheming Lady Blance, would have done better with firmer direction, for she apeared a trifle timid on stage. Barbara Menaker had more success as Lady Psyche, Miss Menaker being another one of those whose acting was twisted into an excessive show of will. Musically the show was a tour de force. The score is interesting enough to justify a detailed treatment impossible here, for it is at once one of Sullivan's most clever (witness the parody of Handel in the scene in which the sons are disarmed) and most serious. Several of the arias reflect his growing concern for the more traditional forms of grand opera. Given the unobtrusive staging it is possible to regard the orchestra with a certain concentration, and James Paul's direction is thereby revealed to be impeccable.
The few bravos at the end of the performance were misplaced, but the sustained applause was not.