I'm not a great G&S fan. To my ears, Sullivan's music is not anywhere near as good as that of the great composers of 19th century comic opera, Rossini, Donizetti, Strauss or Offenbach. The ballads sound like Victorian parlor music. And the lyrics, while witty, aren't as clever as the great Amercan lyricists, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart or Stephen Sondheim. On the other hand, I'm always surprised when I go to a G&S performance to find that I enjoy it if it is well sung and directed. I think I have been put off by the folks who are religious about G&S and by amateur performances. G&S musicals They are musical comedy, after all) deserve good singing and comic acting. I once starred in an amateur G&S production. I know I was awful, but my colleagues weren't much better. At one performance, a fellow actor forgot an entrance leaving me alone on stage for six long minutes trying to improvise in G&S style. All I can say is that it must have been worse for the audience than it was for me.
The tiny Union Theatre in London which specializes in pocket size revivals of classic musicals, now do an annual all male production of a G&S work. This year it is IOLANTHE and it is delightful. The conceit is that some boys rummage through an attic and decide to put on IOLANTHE with whatever they find. The sixteen talented (with one exception) young men then play both the fairies and the elderly Lords. The fairies are dressed in an odd combination of women's undergarments with shuttlecocks as wings. The Lords are dressed in extremely dusty old drapery. It's all great fun.
First, the music. The men must be able to perform effectively in falsetto as the fairies, then with strong tenor and bass voices for the Lords. They're all extremely good singers. The choral work is superb, the solo work never less than good. There is only piano accompaniment, but in such a small space, one doesn't miss a orchestra.
The performances are all totally committed. There is never a sense that the performers are merely camping it up but that they are really playing faries and silly old men. Yes, this is all camp, but not the least bit cynical or ironic. There's one oddly weak performance, Gianni Onori as the romantic lead, Strephon. He's handsome, but simply can't act. I never for a moment thought he even understood what he was saying. Surely the director, Sasha Regan, noticed this. Onori's ineptitude seems to be part of the concept, but I'm not sure it works. He's not funny awful, just oddly detached from the proceedings.
This IOLANTHE is the best staged G&S production I have seen. All the musical numbers are superbly choreographed (Mark Smith). The show dances from beginning to end which one does not expect of a G&S production. Sometimes it's disconcertingly "in your face" in this small space. We were in the front row and nearly got trampled a couple of times. The cast all (Mr. Onori excepted) dance as well as they sing.
I'm already looking forward the the Union's next G&S.
IOLANTHE at the Union Theatre. December 3, 2010