by Jenny Hansell
Is there anything sturdier and more resilient than a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta? There are occasional professional productions of Pirates of Penzance or HMS Pinafore at opera houses and regional theaters, but I’d bet that it’s local amateur companies that have kept the operettas alive for 130 years and counting.
Why so evergreen? G&S shows offer plentiful opportunities for amateur ensembles to sing complex and lovely music, and the lead roles give the best singers in the community a chance to shine, while leaving room for the character actor with limited singing range or two left feet. Every G&S production I’ve seen (or performed in, with the late lamented Light Opera Company of Salisbury, CT) has a large chorus of simpering maids played by women from their teens through their 80s, and assorted pirates, policeman or “gentlemen of Japan” played by men who may struggle to hit the high notes of their younger days, or remember which order their feet should grapevine, but are as courtly or dastardly as the moment requires. The simple plots, the witty lyrics, the tradition of updating them with current references, and above all the gorgeous music, so much fun to sing and to listen to, has kept the G&S repertory going in communities around the world, with the traditions passed on like folk tales.
The Gondoliers is less well known than the “big three” of Pirates, Pinafore and Mikado, but with its gorgeous score and perfectly silly plot, it deserves to be seen, and the Valley Light Opera is currently mounting a very entertaining production at the Academy of Music in Northampton. With a cast of thousands (not really, but it’s big) and a full orchestra, this community production fills the stage with color.
The plot concerns two penniless but handsome young brothers, gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe. They decide to choose brides from among the assembled village ladies, who fan themselves and faint at the prospect. It turns out that one of them is the heir to the throne in Barataria, but since nobody knows which, they must leave their brides behind and assume the duties of the monarchy together. They are Republicans, however, of the 19th century sort, which means they don’t believe in hierarchies: they help out with the menial duties of the kingdom while treating the Lord High Footman and Lord High Drummer Boy with outsized respect.
Not much else happens until the identity of the true king is revealed: various amusing characters enter, sing a song to explain who they are, and leave again.
Among those are the down-on-their-luck Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, who support themselves by endorsing dubious products, and their daughter Casilda, who was married at birth to the now-incognito prince. She, however, is secretly in love with Luiz, the one-man ‘suite’ serving her family.
As the Duke, Jonathan Klate stands out for his authoritative voice and comic timing. Kathy Blaisdell is a classic G&S mezzo-soprano, carrying off her songs with verve. Elaine Crane as Casilda has a sweet soprano and is very believable as she puzzles over her fate. Brad Amidon, as Luiz, isn’t the strongest singer but is a terrific comic actor, and plays an 11th-hour twist to the hilt.
The strongest voices on the stage belong to the four young lovers: George Eisenhauer and Christopher Marcus play Marco and Giuseppe as a goofy Mutt-and-Jeff pair. As Gianetta, Libby Maxey has a glorious operatic voice, though her words are mostly incomprehensible. Luckily there are supertitles projected in the theater (which synced up with what was on stage about 50% of the time.) Kimaya Diggs was a warm and charming Tessa.
The orchestra, ably led by conductor Aldo Fabrizi, gave some extra bad-guy music to Don Alhambra, the Grand Inquisitor who stole away the young prince to begin with, and is played with understated menace by Matthew Roehrig.
As with any G&S production, the script was updated with plentiful and very amusing current references, from Bernie bros to pussy hats and Kardashians, to rhyming Ivanka and Sri Lanka, with a little Macarena thrown in. I was waiting for a tie-in with the two brother gondoliers to Don Jr and Eric but sadly it never came. As someone who always slightly chafed at playing the giggling girl year after year, I particularly appreciated when Tessa’s line, “those two poor Monarchs haven’t got any one to mend their stockings or sew on their buttons or patch their clothes” was interrupted by a chorister adding “or build their buildings or run for office!” Happily, the script doctors didn’t overload the production with too many such interludes.
The minor roles and ensemble are filled with Pioneer Valley residents, including a paleontologist, a pastor, a dentist, a massage therapist, a climate activist, several teachers and a passel of delightful middle-schoolers who cartwheel, ride mini-gondolas mounted on scooters, and add even more life to the village scenes. The ensemble as a whole particularly shone on the opening number, List and Learn, and the lively dance interlude, the Cachucha.
The orchestra, almost without exception, played beautifully, though occasionally were much louder than the ensemble, at least where I was sitting near the front. Friends in the middle of the house reported they had no trouble hearing the singers over the instruments.
Seeing this production reminded me that my grandfather, whom I never met, was said to have played Ko-Ko in a community production of the Mikado decades before I was born. I did some strategic Googling and sure enough, found a notice about the production, mentioning him, in the Detroit Free Press from 1935. May Gilbert & Sullivan be passed down for another 130 years, at least!
Valley Light Opera presents The Gondoliers, music by Sir Arthur Sullivan, lyrics by Sir W.S. Gilbert, directed by Michael O. Budnick. Music Director, Aldo Fabrizi, at the Academy of Music Theatre, 274 Main St, Northampton, MA, November 2-11, 2018. Choreographers: Susan Edwards Dresser & Nicole Newell; Lighting Designer: Mike Freedman; Costume Designer: Laura Green; Props: Kevin Cox; Stage Manager: Achaetey Kabal; Technical Director: Steve Morgan; Set Designer: Steve Riddle.
Cast: Gianetta: Libby Maxey; Tessa: Kimaya Diggs; Fiametta: Donna Griffin; Vittoria: Heather Williams; Giulia: Nicole Newell; Marco Palmieri: George Eisenhauer; Giuseppe Palmieri: Christopher Marcus; Antonio: Robin Parsons; Francesco: Steven Williams; Giorgio: Jeff Erb; Annibale: Ted Fijal; The Duke of Plaza-Toro: Jonathan Klate; The Duchess of Plaza-Toro: Kathy Blaisdell; Casilda: Elaine Crane; Luiz: Brad Amidon; Don Alhambra del Bolero: Matt Roehrig; Inez: Lucy Robinson. Featured Dancers: Anju Diggs, Kimaya Diggs, Eli Dresser, Ripley Dresser, Donna Griffin, Sophie Kawall, Libby Maxey, Nicole Newell, Talia Sadiq, Heather Williams. Cameos: Young Marco: Eli Dresser, Amory Maxey (alternate); Young Giuseppe: Henry Maxey; Young Gianetta: Ripley Dresser, Sophie Kawall (alternate): Young Tessa: Talia Sadiq. Ensemble: Katherine Benfer, McKenna Cambo, Anju Diggs, Eli Dresser, Ripley Dresser, Anan Eisenstein-Bond, Gary Felder, Gordon Freed (Baptisto Palmieri), Deborah Jacobson, Sophie Kawall, Nina Levin-Pollard (Party Leader), ELysse Link, Amory Maxey, Henry Maxey, Marc McMenamin, David Mix Barrington (The King), Paul Peelle, Amanda Seymour, William Tobey.
The production goes up at the Academy of Music in Northampton November 2, 3, 9 and 10 at 7:30 with matinees November 4 and 11 at 2:00PM. Tickets are available at the Academy of Music box office or at aom.ticketfly.com. The Gondoliers is presented with the generous media sponsorship of New England Public Radio, 88.5 FM and The NEPR News Network.