Saturday night’s audience at the Mountain View Center for the Performing arts was delighted and enchanted by the Lamplighter’s splendid performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe.” Stage director Barbara Heroux was completely on her game, giving us a production that was a glorious romp from beginning to end. All the elements were just right, from the sets to the costumes to the lights. Add to that the top notch dramatic and musical talents of the cast, and you have the recipe for a hit.
“Iolanthe” was written as Gilbert and Sullivan were approaching their height of popularity, and both had hit their stride. It contains some of the most tuneful and sprightly music Sullivan ever composed. Gilbert also was in top form, carefully focusing his satire on politics and the law in ways that are remarkably relevant today. Moreover, it is a story of true love and somewhat surprisingly, female power.
Phyllis, an Arcadian shepherdess, is in love with Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd. They are to be married. Unfortunately, she is a ward in chancery, and her guardian, the Lord Chancellor of England, will not consent. He would prefer her to marry someone from the House of Peers. Strephon is not without his resources, though, being the son of a fairy (Iolanthe) and as such under the protection of the Fairy Queen and the entire band of fairies. This unique setup is just another instance of Gilbert’s penchant for topsy-turveydom, and he uses it skillfully to put the real human emotions and interactions in stark relief.
The opening scene set the stage quite well, with the female chorus ably navigating ballet poses and basic steps as they declare themselves to be “dainty, little fairies, ever singing, ever dancing.” It had the look in color and feel of a painting by Degas. Stephanie Dietz with her light, lyric soprano and newcomer Katelyn Neumann with her rich mezzo sang with feeling and understanding as the fairies Celia and Leila.
Cary Ann Rosko was superb as the Fairy Queen. She is a tall woman, and her height was enhanced by a crown that forced her hair straight up. Consequently, she presented a strong character that was not to be trifled with, and she commanded the stage whenever she was present. She has a lovely, strong alto voice, and used it to good effect as she dominated the peers in the first act finale and in her “Oh foolish fay” as she explains the necessity to control ones affections to the fairy band.
Alexandra Sessler was a powerful Phyllis, and she was able to easily transition between the simple light style of Arcadian folk song to the intensity of a woman scorned as she catches Strephon with his head in Iolanthe’s lap. Her full soprano sound could be heard easily soaring above the chorus in the ensemble scenes. She had many wonderful moments.
Samuel Rabinowitz is also a newcomer, and sang Strephon with a bravura tenor voice. Strephon is on stage for a good portion of the show, and he handled the part with ease. My only quibble is that Mr. Rabinowitz is in better shape than Strephon, who is described as “inclined to be stout…”
Robby Stafford and John Brown played the two main peers who are competing for Phyllis’s hand, Lord Mountararat and Lord Tolloler. They were extremely amusing and did a terrific job delivering some of the wittiest lines Gilbert ever wrote. Brown’s ringing tenor voice was just right for is entreaty to Phyllis to “Spurn not the nobly born,” and Stafford brought down the house with his booming bass-baritone in “When Britain really ruled the waves.”
The comic baritone in Iolanthe is the Lord Chancellor, and F. Lawrence Ewing deftly navigated his way through the multitude of rapid patter. His iconic “Nightmare song” was one of the high points of the evening. Ewing played the role in a way that highlighted the Lord Chancellor’s frustration at not being able to marry Phyllis himself.
Molly Mahoney’s portrayal of the title role was sweetness itself. She really was able to come across as a mother figure, despite being physically younger than her son. Her alto voice was warm and comforting, and she brought me close to tears with her heartfelt rendition of “He loves.”
Perhaps the smallest major role in the canon is that of Private Willis, but it is a memorable one. Sean Irwin was quite convincing as the sentry outside the houses of Parliament, soliloquizing about liberals and conservatives in “When all night long.” He has a lovely, resonant bass voice that filled the house in his solo, yet blended perfectly in the a cappella quartet with Phyllis, and the two Lords.
The male chorus was absolutely glorious, decked out in colorful robes and coronets. Their entry with the “March of the Peers” was thrilling as they imitated the sound of trumpets and drums while commanding “Bow, bow ye lower middle classes!” The choreography was akin to a Busby Berkeley movie or the June Taylor dancers, as they made various formations taking advantage of the colors of their costumes. It was priceless.
Barbara Heroux has a very good sense for taking a traditional production and adding in unexpected twists that make sense textually without going over the top. It made for a highly enjoyable evening of innocent fun.
“Iolanthe” plays for two more weekends, August 16-18 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and August 24-25 at the Bankhead Theatre in Livermore.