A Little Nice Music

On Theater

The Yeomen of the Guard

Book and Lyrics by W.S. Gilbert

Music by Arthur Sullivan

Music Directed by Robert Weingart

Directed by Ronni Marshak


At the Agassiz Theater

Through April 19th

THE HEADSMAN'S BLOCK is hardly the ideal centerpiece for a comic opera, but The Yeomen of the Guard is hardly the ideal comic opera. Rife with unlikable characters and uninventive contrivances, this odd Gilbert and Sullivan number is rightfully among the rarely revived. The Harvard Gilbert & Sullivan Players have an obligation to give due attention to each of Sir William and Sir Arthur's works, however, and their spring production is an able and ultimately entertaining attempt at presenting the eleventh of the duo's 14 operettas

It's the sixteenth century. Locked in the Tower of London is Colonel Fairfax (Garland Withers), condemned to death as a result of a jealous relative's evil machinations. Everyone loves Fairfax, particularly Sergeant Meryll (Douglas Freeman) of the Tower yeomen and Meryll's daughter Phoebe (Lisa Zeidenberg). Maneuvering on their own, they seek to free the condemned man--Meryll in appreciation of Fairfax's past heroism, Phoebe in anticipation of the captive's predicted amours.

Meanwhile, the stoic-if-vindictive colonel is contriving to have the last laugh on his unseen tormentor, who will gain the family fortune only if Fairfax dies a bachelor. The Lieutenant of the Tower (David Magill), another Fairfax fan, agrees to find him a woman who will marry him before his execution in exchange for a hundred crown dower. The woman in question is is Elsie Maynard (Michelle French), a traveling minstrelette who does the country fair circuit with jestering partner Jack Point (Peter F. Miller). Point hopes someday to marry Elsie, but agrees to the scheme after hearing the clink of the hundred crowns.

Moments after Fairfax is married to a blindfolded Elsie, he is rescued by Meryll, who disguises him as his long-away son, a royal yeomen newly assigned to the Tower guard. With Fairfax on the lam under a false indentity, Elsie finds herself stuck a bride for a much longer haul than Fairfax's scheduled execution had suggested.

In a conventional musical comedy this convoluted climax to the first act would simply be the lead to a satisfying conclusion in act two. Things do conclude, in a sense, but The Yeomen, so unsoothingly heavy for a light opera, trundles forth to a decidedly unsettling end.

PERHAPS A STUNNING production could lift the darker elements of the operetta to an ironical statement against the smarmier preconceptions of musical comedy. After all, everyone in this play gets what he wants only through deceit or treachery, not least of all Fairfax, who uses his good looks and gentlemanly heroic manner to impress every man and enrapture any woman who crosses his path. In this world, marriages are contracted via the forces of blackmail, not true love, and the essential work of all involved--seeing to the imprisonment, torture and execution of prisoners of the crown--is never questioned.

But director Ronni Marshak, using a mixed bag of students, alumni and professional actors, has provided only a competent illustration of the operetta, animating the characters and plot, but failing to provide the imagination necessary to save the unhappy Yeomen. Choreography is drab and activity limp. When the show succeeds, it is through the rarely faltering cleverness of Bill Gilbert and Art Sullivan, who have never failed to provide enticing verbal and musical strands.

Clearly rising above the general adequacy is Miller, whose combination of verbal and athletic dexterity makes Jack Point at once the most convincing and most entertaining figure in the show. Whether leaping and somersaulting across the stage or acting the mock-Shakespearean trickster Gilbert envisioned Point to be, Miller possesses the vibrancy necessary to ignite the show.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the cast lacks the simple liveliness that could make the difference between competence and excitement. Overactress Zeidenberg works hard to appear the storybook caricature of lovestruck Phoebe, and bright eyes and rich voice provide the elements of a successful performance. Withers as Fairfax enters with the melancholy appropriate for a man facing execution, but the low-key colonel never seems to realize that his character continues to live in subsequent scenes. Freeman, in spite of an unextraordinary voice, brings off the role of Meryll with genuine likability.

MISCASTING MARS TWO important roles. David Schrag as head jailer ("and assistant tormentor") Wilfrid Shadbolt valiantly stumbles and smirks his way through his path of comic relief, but the darkly cherubic actor simply looks too young to be taken seriously. A suitor of Phoebe and a conspirator with Point, his adolescent countenance distracts the audience from an otherwise entertaining effort. French as Elsie suffers from a corresponding problem; more than any of the other non-students in the show, French is just too old for her part of "a maid of 17." Possessing the production's finest voice, she is nonetheless unconvincing as an ingenue gone astray.

But this Yeomen has several outstanding features which compensate for its flaws, not least of all a complete orchestra. Student musicals frequently suffer from inadequate musical orchestration or performance, but perhaps because the G&S show isn't exactly an all-student affair, the music rarely disappoints.

Best of all, however, is the marvelous set designed by Gino Lee, who has taken the drab setting of prison granite and turned it into a three-dimensional playhouse. Like a giant pop-up book, the Tower courtyard springs from the stage and folds out to provide interior scenes. Costumes are generally adequate and occasionally impressive, but snatches of synthetic fabric detract from the Elizabethan feel, and several chorus members seem garbed in get-ups on loan from neighboring centuries.

The successful elements of the spring Yeomen mask its shortcomings. Musicals, no matter how dumb, always entertain if performed with a modicum of professionalism. This strange operetta claims only to be "an experiment in merriment," and though it doesn't quite illuminate all the author and composer might have hoped it would, the Gilbert & Sullivan Players have fulfilled their obligation to their namesakes with enjoyable artistry. Thanks to that effort, The Yeomen of the Guard won't have to be performed again, until all the present matriculants of the College are long gone away.

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