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Two happy events occurred Monday night. In the acts of God category, arid Cambridge felt a few drops of rain; in the other instance, the Harvard Gilbert and Sullivan Players opened their sparkling production of The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria.
The G&S Players are familiar to Cambridge audiences, and the high quality of their productions is well-established. But no regular University group has yet ventured into summer productions, and the prospect of seeing an amateur group stacked against professional summer stock was, to say the least, interesting. After viewing Monday night's opening, one cannot say that the Players are of professional quality, but one hastens to emphasize that they bring to the stage a freshness and gayety which is both the very essence of G & S and the basis of successful amateurism.
To put the matter in a sentence, The Gondoliers is an evening of delightful songs, performed by some excellent voices, and staged in a remarkably effective manner..
There is room for argument on whether The Gondoliers is the very best of G & S, or whether by 1889, when it was first produced, the old formula was becoming somewhat stylized and losing its freshness. Actually, I subscribe to the former view, for the opera contains some of the most ingenious of Gilbert's lyrics, a generous supply of Sullivan's best tunes, and more than a sprinkling of biting satire which seems even more relevant today than it was in 1889.
The plot, like all G & S, is incidental to the essence, which is the songs themselves. The Gondoliers revolves around that stock English situation of changelings and mistaken identities, and ends with a happy resolution of the whole mess. The satire is aimed directly at both the pretensions of monarchy and the stupidity of the levellers who would supplant it. Except with Shakespeare and G & S, kings tend to set one yawning, but the Duke of Plaza-Toro and the King of Barataria are rollicking good fun. The brunt of the satire falls on the Gondoliers themselves, however, and their attempts to run the principality of Barataria according to the maxim that "all departments are equal and every man is the head of his department" provide hilarious, and somewhat timely, satirical situations.
The chief virtue of the production is a cast of exceptionally high-quality voices which is agreeably suited to comic opera. Unfortunately, the acting is not always so successful, at least it is not up to the calibre of the singing. In the title roles of the two primi gondolieri and pretenders to the throne of Barataria, Bruce Macdonald and George Brown both sing remarkably well and elicit a great deal of satire from their acting. Neither of the pair strikes one as of the gondoliering or the regal type, but this only serves to heighten the humor.
As the beloved of the two gondoliers, Matilda Cole and Martha White are suitably charming and quite equal to their vocal assignments. Miss Cole was particularly enjoyable because she has a pleasantly natural smile, whereas the cast in general was somewhat addicted to asinine grins.
Special credit is due Arthur Waldstein as the Duke of Plaza-Toro and to his whole entourage, including John Bernard as his attendant, Alison Keith as the pompous Duchess, and Marjory Harper as the daughter, later Queen of Barataria. Waldstein is nothing short of hilarious as the somewhat down-at-the-heels Duke. Alison Keith, who is well-known to Cambridge audiences, is an excellent actress who possesses a fine comic opera voice. John Bernard has an extremely able voice and he appeared quite natural in his role as drummer-boy, later King of Barataria. As his beloved, Marjory Harper carries off her imperious airs very well, but she appeared somewhat stiff in her love scenes.
One of the highlights of the entire production is John Graef as Don Alhambra, the Grand Inquisitor. With Graef's rich voice, excellent enunciation, and unctuously sinister air, it is difficult to imagine more perfect casting.
The other principals include Marjorie Meeks and Eugene Gervasi as incidental dancers, with Karl Cook, Richard Bateson, Frederick Slater, Arthur Lewis, Claire Sarnie, Nancy Ryan, Carol Crowley, and Pamela Smythe filling out the minor singing roles.
The Players have not attempted to solve the problem of Sanders Theatre, but as the problem is insoluble anyway perhaps they were wise to ignore it. The stage is obviously masked and the sets extremely simple. The simplicity of the stage is contrasted with a lavish costuming job, particularly in the second-act palace scene.
When the full complement of gondoliers and contadine are on stage, the problem of stage direction becomes somewhat confused, especially in the first act. There seem to be a good number of people standing around with their hands in their pockets, but as long as the singing remains of the same quality, the cast could stand on its head if it wished. For those who prefer G & S in the grand manner, the stage may be too simple and the acting underdeveloped. But for those who like pure G & S without ornamental trappings, the production is much superior for its unconcern with frills.
The music is rendered in virtuoso manner by Martin J. Faigel, and Chester W. Hartman has done a remarkable job as music director. The stage direction is by veteran Joan S. Mickelson, with Victor N. Claman producing the show.
The Players have done the Summer School community a genuine service in presenting the first, and it would seem the only, theatre in Cambridge this season. The only thing The Gondoliers will need is an audience, and if it doesn't get one, the reason certainly will not be the lack of a sparkling, witty, and thoroughly enjoyable evening's entertainment.
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