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Peers Without Peers and Dracula

Iolanthe, in repertory at the Colonial through August 19 The Passion of Dracula, at Spingold Theater, Brandeis, through August 27

By Caldwell Titcomb

In the long history of satirical tomfoolery and nonsensicality on the stage, two bodies of work constitute equal peaks: the eleven extant comedies of Aristophanes and the fourteen collaborative operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The two groups share numerous features; and, in fact, the celebrated G. & S. "patter songs" have their origin in the non-stop pnigos passages in Aristophanes' plays.

All but the first of the G. & S. operettas were commissioned and produced by Richard D'Oyly Carte, who in 1881 erected a structure expressly for them, the Savoy Theater, which was the first public building in England to be lighted by electricity. From that time until today, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company has been the continuous custodian of the G. & S. repertory and traditions.

The Company is now winding up a cross continental tour by bringing four productions to Boston's Colonial Theater, where it played three of them with great success year before last.

The novelty of this trip is the new production of Iolanthe mounted last year to honor Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee; and it is a suitably shining achievement. Iolanthe was the first of the G. & S. series to have its premiere at the Savoy Theater (the tour press release errs in saying it was Patience, which was transferred to the Savoy after six months at another theater).

Gilbert wrote 71 works for the stage, and his libretto for Iolanthe is one of the best he furnished Sullivan. In addition to his usual plot about young lovers kept apart until the end by some silly rule, he filled the stage with fairies, half-fairies and mortals, aimed his barbed burlesque at the House of Lords and, through the character of the Lord Chancellor, at the legal profession (of which Gilbert himself was a member). Although his libretti were largely drawn from ideas in his earlier Bab Ballads, they show a greater infusion of dazzling wit and a range of metrical experimentation that was positively Aristophanic.

For his part, Sullivan never surpassed -- and possibly never equalled -- his score for Iolanthe. The overture is one of only two that are fully developed pieces of music (Yeomen of the Guard has the other), in contrast to the usual potpourri of tunes, often stitched together by another hand. Sullivan's orchestration is delectable, especially all the elfin woodwind writing appropriate for a fairy world. And nobody has ever demonstrated more variety and skill in setting the English language to music, whether for solo or ensemble singers. The first-act finale of Iolanthe is one of the largest, richest and most ambitious he ever penned.

For the Silver Jubilee production Bruno Santini designed fresh costumes and settings for the fairy world that are all silver and black. And, taking a cue from the Fairy Queen's remark about being able to "swing upon a cobweb," he opened the show by dropping in a huge cobweb. This denial of a broad spectrum only serves to heighten the impact of the ensuing magnificent procession of Peers, fifteen strong, resplendently garbed and sporting rich velvet capes of different colors. The music itself not only parodies marches by Bellini, Meyerbeer, Wagner and Verdi but is also better than the pieces it satirizes. And the chorus of lords makes a full, lusty sound -- without the awful electronic amplification that mars most musical theater these days. These are Peers without peers.

We soon meet the Lord Chancellor, who is defendant, prosecutor, judge and jury rolled into one. (Sullivan effects a pun on the legal and musical meanings of canon by repeatedly associating the Lord Chancellor's appearances with fugal imitations in the orchestra.) This part, and others that used to be done by the late Martyn Green, have been for a quarter century the province of John Reed, who remains a lively and comical performer, despite the excessive doffing and donning of pince-nez. The nightmare number is the greatest of all the G. &. S. patter songs; and Reed, in the encore, increases the headlong tempo beyond what one would think the limit of possibility. At the end of the evening, however, I see no excuse for Reed's electing to change the single word that resolves the plot from Gilbert's doesn't to the ungrammatical don't.

Geoffrey Shovelton, a relative newcomer to the Company, and John Ayldon, who joined more than a decade ago, could hardly be better as the two earls engaged to the same girl. Shovelton has a lovely unforced tenor voice, and Ayldon's baritone beautifully belts out "When Britain Really Ruled," a parody of patriotic songs like "Rule Britannia." In their spoken Act II discussion they capture to perfection Gilbert's portrait of Victorian dim-witted stuffiness. They are fine, too, in the sure-fire trio "He Who Shies," as they try to catch the lithe-limbed Lord Chancellor indulging in undignified capers (including even a touch of the Charleston).

Gareth Jones brings a pleasant tenor to the straight role of the half-mortal Strephon, and Kenneth Sandford, who has been with the troupe for more than two decades, is a sturdy Private Willis (he will be giving something close to his 2100th performance as Pooh-Bah in The Mikado here).

The female soloists are not up to the men. Still, contralto Patricia Leonard is an admirable Fairy Queen, stern on the outside but soft within. When speaking she sometimes amusingly summons up the inflections of the late Dame Edith Evans. Barbara Lilley's Iolanthe and Jane Metcalfe's Phyllis are acceptable but not outstanding. Metcalfe needs to work still on her diction when singing. And why doesn't Lilley use the prescribed veil in her encounter with the Lord Chancellor, who is supposed not to recognize her?

Conductor Royston Nash keeps things moving along smoothly. At the opening performance there were a few ragged moments in the orchestra, but this was inevitable since apparently only the concertmaster and one trumpeter came with the company, the rest being recruited locally.

Iolanthe will be back for the last three performances of the current engagement. In between the D'Oylycarte du jour is offering Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance. I saw these ee when the troupe was here two years ago, and all were in good shape--Pinafore, in fact, was well-nigh flawless. We are fortunate to have four feasts served with a fresh and clean D'Oyly.

* * * *

A feast of a different kind is on view at Brandeis University's Spingold Theater, where the most famous of all vampires, Count Dracula, is busy sucking blood from victims willing and unwilling.

This is not the half-century-old dramatization by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston, in which Bram Stoker's 1897 epistolary novel was moved up to the 1920s--the version that brought fame to Bela Lugosi (whom I saw play it here in Boston near the end of his life) and is now doing the same on Broadway for Frank Langella. Nor is it the later adaptation by Crane Johnson, which I have never seen.

Instead we have a new version, set in 1911 and entitled The Passion of Dracula, fashioned by Bob Hall and David Richmond, men with more experience in acting and directing than in writing. It opened in New York last September and is still running at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theater. The New York director, Peter Bennett, has repeated his assignment with the newly assembled cast here, as have Allen Cornell (set and lighting) and Jane Tschetter (costumes).

The old play has eight characters, the new one nine; and of these, six turn up in both. The new version sticks somewhat more closely to the novel in terms of plot. And, in these days of high production costs, it has the advantage of convincingly restricting the action to Dr. Seward's study, whereas the old play requires three separate sets.

The most important difference, however, is one of tone. The old play was written as a straight melodrama, with everything to be taken relatively seriously. But Hall and Richmond have intentionally laced their play with lots of funny lines; and one remark in the third act rightly puts the audience into an uproar.

At the same time the script is not paced as well as one would wish. There are patches of water-treading and even stasis alternating with patches of too-frantic activity. The play thus produces not only shudders and laughs but also occasional yawns. Still, the new text is fully as entertaining as the old. For some reason, though, the producers are advertising this show as having "an all-star Broadway cast." If words still have any meaning at all, this has got to be the hyperbole of the season.

In an adventurous bit of off-beat casting, the title role is in the hands of the great flamenco dancer Jose Greco, who has never interpreted a speaking character on stage before. Not surprisingly, he moves on stage exceedingly well; also not surprisingly, he is vocally deficient. His diction often lacks conviction, and the combination of Latin and Transylvanian accents and some scanted syllables does not help intelligibility. He brings to the role neither the hypnotic power of Lugosi nor the sensuous elegance of Langella.

The best performance in the show comes from Kevin McClarnon, who plays the mad but not-so-mad patient Renfield, given to eating flies and (instead of the original spiders) fieldmice. He has an expressive face, and skillfully captures both the comic and pathetic facets of this disturbed character. An admirable piece of work.

As the Dutch scientist Van Helsing, I.M. Hobson offers a startling reincarnation of the late Zero Mostel. On opening night, the player of Lord Godalming was not yet secure in his lines. As for the other roles, they are standard summer stock.

A word of praise goes to the solid set and the dramatic lighting; also to the special effects: the fog, the puffs of smoke, the trickling blood, the bat that flies over the audience, and the fieldmouse that jumps out of Renfield's hand and scurries across the floor into the fireplace. There is fun, too, in the soundtrack: chilling animal calls in the distance, snippets of Debussy and Mahler and Holst, and a wonderfully ominous neo-Wagnerian leitmotif for tuba and timpani.

* * * *

A feast of a different kind is on view at Brandeis University's Spingold Theater, where the most famous of all vampires, Count Dracula, is busy sucking blood from victims willing and unwilling.

This is not the half-century-old dramatization by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston, in which Bram Stoker's 1897 epistolary novel was moved up to the 1920s--the version that brought fame to Bela Lugosi (whom I saw play it here in Boston near the end of his life) and is now doing the same on Broadway for Frank Langella. Nor is it the later adaptation by Crane Johnson, which I have never seen.

Instead we have a new version, set in 1911 and entitled The Passion of Dracula, fashioned by Bob Hall and David Richmond, men with more experience in acting and directing than in writing. It opened in New York last September and is still running at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theater. The New York director, Peter Bennett, has repeated his assignment with the newly assembled cast here, as have Allen Cornell (set and lighting) and Jane Tschetter (costumes).

The old play has eight characters, the new one nine; and of these, six turn up in both. The new version sticks somewhat more closely to the novel in terms of plot. And, in these days of high production costs, it has the advantage of convincingly restricting the action to Dr. Seward's study, whereas the old play requires three separate sets.

The most important difference, however, is one of tone. The old play was written as a straight melodrama, with everything to be taken relatively seriously. But Hall and Richmond have intentionally laced their play with lots of funny lines; and one remark in the third act rightly puts the audience into an uproar.

At the same time the script is not paced as well as one would wish. There are patches of water-treading and even stasis alternating with patches of too-frantic activity. The play thus produces not only shudders and laughs but also occasional yawns. Still, the new text is fully as entertaining as the old. For some reason, though, the producers are advertising this show as having "an all-star Broadway cast." If words still have any meaning at all, this has got to be the hyperbole of the season.

In an adventurous bit of off-beat casting, the title role is in the hands of the great flamenco dancer Jose Greco, who has never interpreted a speaking character on stage before. Not surprisingly, he moves on stage exceedingly well; also not surprisingly, he is vocally deficient. His diction often lacks conviction, and the combination of Latin and Transylvanian accents and some scanted syllables does not help intelligibility. He brings to the role neither the hypnotic power of Lugosi nor the sensuous elegance of Langella.

The best performance in the show comes from Kevin McClarnon, who plays the mad but not-so-mad patient Renfield, given to eating flies and (instead of the original spiders) fieldmice. He has an expressive face, and skillfully captures both the comic and pathetic facets of this disturbed character. An admirable piece of work.

As the Dutch scientist Van Helsing, I.M. Hobson offers a startling reincarnation of the late Zero Mostel. On opening night, the player of Lord Godalming was not yet secure in his lines. As for the other roles, they are standard summer stock.

A word of praise goes to the solid set and the dramatic lighting; also to the special effects: the fog, the puffs of smoke, the trickling blood, the bat that flies over the audience, and the fieldmouse that jumps out of Renfield's hand and scurries across the floor into the fireplace. There is fun, too, in the soundtrack: chilling animal calls in the distance, snippets of Debussy and Mahler and Holst, and a wonderfully ominous neo-Wagnerian leitmotif for tuba and timpani.

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