G & S Without Peers
Iolanthe at the Agassiz Theatre tonight, tomorrow and Saturday nights at 8 p.m.
THE LIFE-CYCLE of the drama critic resembles that of a not-so-absolute monarch. At the beginning of his reign, he feels called upon to be strict and even savage in the establishment of his authority; towards the end, a mellowness sets in, and he countenances much that would, years ago, have brought instant retribution from his verbal cat-o'-nine-tails.
Four years ago, my model as a reviewer was George Bernard Shaw and I longed to write as he once did in reviewing a production of Henry IV:
Mr. Mollison presented us with an assortment of effects, and tones, and poses which had no reference, as far as I could discover, to the part of Bolingbroke at any single point. I did not catch a glimpse of the character from one end of his performance to the other...Mr. Gillmore followed every sentence with a forced explosion of mirthless laughter, evidently believing that as Prince Hal was reputed to be a humorous character it was his business to laugh at him...Mr. Tree wants only one thing to make him an excellent Falstaff, and that is to get born over again as unlike himself as possible. No doubt in the course of a month or two, when he begins to pick up a few of the lines of the part, he will improve on his first effort; but he will never be an even moderately good Falstaff...All this is hopeless, irremediable.
Iolanthe is as good as this Henry IV was bad, and a reviewer need not be in his dotage to rave about it. Increasingly, Iolanthe seems to be the favorite work of most Gilbert & Sullivan fanciers. Those who like the gentle, submarine beauty of Sullivan's music claim the best of that is here; others who prefer his loud, brass musical parodies consider the finest of them to be songs like "Bow, bow ye lower middle classes" and "When all night long a chap remains." Those who love the way Gilbert's characters take an inherently silly contradiction and straight-facedly draw it out to a logical conclusion consider the Lord Chancellor the apex of this species. And, finally, those who relish most of all Gilbert's pointed but unhysterical satire find it at its most effective in Iolanthe:
When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
As every child can tell,
The House of Peers, throughout the war,
Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well:
Yet Britain set the world ablaze
In good King George's glorious days!
When in that house MP's divide,
If they've a brain and cerebellum, too
They've got to leave that brain outside
And vote just as their leaders tell them to.
But then the prospect of a lot
Of dull MP's in close proximity,
All thinking for themselves, is what
No man can face with equanimity.
AT FIRST SIGHT, though, Iolanthe doesn't appear to be the high point of Gilbert and Sullivan's career. The first of the two plots concerns Fairyland, a stern Fairy Queen and a half-Fairy named Strephon, who is a Fairy from his head to his waist but whose legs are mortal. As in most G&S operas, there is a foolishly severe law that needs to be broken before happiness can be achieved--in The Mikado it is the prohibition of flirting, in H.M.S. Pinafore it is the prohibition of swearing, in Ruddigore it is the commission of one evil deed a day. In Iolanthe it is the Fairy law that "it is death to marry a mortal."
The second plot, far and away Gilbert's funniest, concerns the House of Lords. Gilbert has his Lord Mountararat (a name suggesting the aristocracy's excessive reverence for ancestry) proclaim that "If there is a single institution that is unsusceptible of any improvement whatsoever, it is the House of the Lords." This recalls the Duke of Wellington's remark a half-century earlier that Parliament was perfect--on the eve of the Reform Bill.
At the end, of course, the male chorus (the House of Lords) marries the female (the Fairies) and--sprouting hilarious mechanical wings--trips off to Fairyland. Along the way, though, are some of the finest scenes Gilbert and Sullivan ever produced, including the Lord Chancellor's nightmare, the best and most complicated patter song Gilbert ever wrote. The trio at the end of Ruddigore ("My eyes are fully open to my awful situation") is faster and perhaps more tongue-twisting; but the Lord Chancellor's song is the Moby Dick of patter songs, the masterpiece all the rest led up to or away from. Singing the Lord Chancellor's song is the equivalent, for a Savoyard, of Hamlet or Lear for a Shakespearean. The lyrics are a juxtaposition of complete irreverence ("the black silk with gold clocks") with a sense of heightened reality and absurdity characteristic of real nightmares:
And you're giving a treat (penny ice and cold meat) to a party of friends and relations--
They're a ravenous horde--and they all came aboard at Sloane Square and South Kensington stations.
And bound on that journey you find your attorney (who started that morning from Devon);
He's a bit undersized and you don't feel surprised when he tells you he's only eleven.
THE G & S SOCIETY'S production at the Agassiz does full justice to Iolanthe. Here and there, of course, there are minor disappointments--probably due to lack of money rather than lack of talent. The scenery for the opening act in Fairyland looks fourth grade-ish: it consists of three huge white bedsheets painted green and hung as sylvan backdrops. The other set, though--Joe Mobilia's piquant idea of what the Houses of Parliament look like is much better, though whether Rarry or Pugin would recognize it is a good question.
The orchestra, on the whole, is far more impressive than last year's. The string section in particular sounds rich and full, without any of the strain and occasional discortlance that characterized Patience or The Mikado. The trumpet fanfare at the entrance of the Lord is less than sure fingered, but the general effect remains intact.
The production's most surprising success is the way the self-parody of the Fairies is successfully preserved. At no point do they become stale examples of Victorian whimsy. They prance on-stage as jokes, and they stay funny until the end. The Peers are excellent--booming out their lines or strutting across the stage with an exaggerated comical concern for their own dignity. Their first set of costumes looks ludicrously cheap--they're cut out of the kind of felt familiar to elementary school audiences. Again, probably the budget and not the imagination of the G & S Society is at fault.
LORD MOUNTARARAT (Jeff Zax) and Lord Tolloller (Clifton Lewis) are a superb pair of Peers. Zax in particular seems to want to create his own style of Gilbert and Sullivan delivery rather than rely on the tried-and-true English accents and mannerisms that are part of the D'Oyly Carte canon. On the whole, his efforts are successful. Private Willis (Jay Paul) has the largest voice in the cast; during his one major song, his voice fills the theater with a plenitude and an effortlessness that none of the other performers can match.
Phyllis (Susan Van Cott) has the most beautiful voice of any in the cast; though--as frequently happens in a G & S female part--it is sometimes difficult to understand her words. Iolanthe (Nancy Wilson) also has a lovely voice, though her acting is wooden and uncertain. The chiefs of the Fairy chorus (Patty Low, Patty Woo and Rozlyn Anderson) are all fine. One of the few flaws in the characterizations is Doug Morgan's portrayal of half-mortal Strephon. One always sympathizes with actors condemned to boring straight roles while others are allowed to bring down the house. But Morgan can't be forgiven so easily--he approaches his role with a set of two or three facial contortions and speaks his lines in a grating whine.
Unlike some of the other members of the cast, the Lord Chancellor (Dennis Crowley) is at his best in the dialogue sections--his voice clear, sardonic and genuinely Gilbertian. He catches the verbal nuances with the skill of a born Savoyard and manages to be not only a buffoon and a figure of pathos, but, when necessary, a commanding Lord in his own right. The only flaw in Crowley's performance is that his voice is not quite as strong as it might be--never powerful enough to belt out a line that needs belting out. Nonetheless, he traverses the slippery heights of his nightmare song with the grace of a chamois, never faltering and never failing to enunciate clearly.
THE PRODUCTION ITSELF, while spirited, lacks the innovative choreography that distinguished Patience and made it spectacle as well as operetta. Iolanthe is in some ways a more conservative production--there are no daring tricks, no point when all the stops are pulled out. Only two changes in the text were made--one of them an update of a now long-forgotten reference to a London firm, the other a hilarious interjection into the outstanding number of the evening, "Faint heart never won fair lady." Zax, Lewis and Crowley collaborate in a dance number of staggering virtuosity whose best parts don't really begin until the song itself is over. It's all in the encores. What looks on paper and sounds on recordings like a fairly tedious number becomes the high point of the performance, a real show-stopper.
All reservations and qualifications aside, the overall effect of this production is one of over-whelming good music, good humor and good spirits. Nothing like it will be seen again at Harvard until, perhaps, the next G&S production.