Gorgeous voices fill the stage at the Sierra Madre Playhouse but that’s about all there is to recommend in Alison Eliel-Kalmus’s adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. Though G&S fans may find the production more interest-piquing than this reviewer did, SMP’s follow-up to 2012’s Ruddigore could benefit from a tighter directorial hand, less “director’s concept,” and a stricter adherence to the operetta’s original book.
I’ve seen (and raved) about productions of Pinafore and Penzance, so it’s not that Gilbert and Sullivan can’t ever work for me, though I must admit to finding Sullivan’s melodies interchangeable and Gilbert’s lyrics irritatingly repetitive. (Take this one from The Gondoliers: “Everything is interesting. Tell us, tell us all about it! Everything is interesting. Tell us, tell us all about it! Tell us all, yes, all, yes, tell us, tell us, tell us, tell us all, all about it!”) Yes, I know that Sullivan has been called the finest British composer of the 19th Century and that Gilbert is equally renowned as a lyricist, but for someone raised on Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, et al, the duo’s words and music just don’t do it for me.
The Gondoliers’ deliciously preposterous plot is the operetta’s strongest suit, one which has our two Italian gondolier heroes Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri (Craig McEldowney and Dan “DW” McCann) having reached adulthood without the knowledge that one of them is in fact the son and heir to the King Of Barataria. (It seems that a humble gondolier raised the two of them but, alcoholic that he was, ended up forgetting which was the heir to royalty and which his own son and heir to … a gondola.)
With each having found the bride of his dreams—Marco’s is Gianetta (November Christine) and Giuseppe’s is Tessa (Jenna Augen)—none of this would matter had the real prince not already been wed as an infant to Casilda (Kara Masek), daughter of the Duke Of Plaza Toro (James Jaeger) and his Duchess (Joy Weiser), who is herself secretly in love with their attendant Luiz (John King). Oh, and there’s a Cinderella-tressed Grand Inquisitor named Don Alhambra Del Bolero (John Szura) along for the ride.
Who was it who said that the course of true love never did run smooth?
Director-adapter Eliel-Kalmus tinkers unnecessarily with Gilbert’s book. Rather than simply reset the 1889 operetta in 1953, the better to allow costume designer Angela Nicholas to create some gorgeous early-‘50s fashions, Eliel-Kalmus “explains” the new timeframe and setting (London) by imagining that we’re seeing a rehearsal of The Gondoliers by a troupe of strolling English players whose costumes haven’t yet arrived at their current stop and who just happen to be celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, or at least this is what I managed to gather from co-producer Christine Helppie-Soldate’s rambling pre-show announcement. To add to the needless confusion, Eliel-Kalmus would have us believe that the “actress” playing Tessa is a last-minute cast addition, having stumbled upon the theater through a trap-door leading up from London’s “tube.” As for Eliel-Kalmus’s additional dialog, it is quite clear where Gilbert’s book ends and her less than inspired modifications to it begin. (The Duke’s Act Two spiel clearly falls into the latter category.)
All five leads (Augen, Christine, Masak, McCann, and McEldowney) have beautiful legit voices and a flair for comedy, and the fivesome largely avoid the overplaying that marks a number of other performances. King’s Luiz is a treat as well (as is his inspired drumming), and when the entire cast join voices, the result is the kind of operatic ensemble singing that one rarely hears on our musical theater stages.
Maegan Alexandria (Fiametta), Beatrice Barrio-Buchman, Jeff Bratz, dance captain MarLee Candell (Vittoria), Elyse Cook, Matt Damone, Mickey de Lara, Sarah Fazeli, Aaron Guest, Brooke Johnson, Randy Wade Kelley (Antonio, Francesco, Annibale), Christian McClure, Olivia O’Neill, Ken Schmidt, Karim Shalon (Giulia), Steven Silvers, Leslie Thompson (Inez), and Sunil Vernekar are all marvelous singers, and Eliel-Kalmus deserves major kudos for casting as broad an ethic mix as I’ve seen in many a production.
Still, I couldn’t help feeling that the cast had pretty much been told “If you think it’s funny, do it,” where a stronger directorial hand might have kept everyone reined in, on the same page, and looking less like community theater players, particularly when unimaginative blocking has them simply lined up across the stage.
Highest praise is in order for musical director-accompanist Leonardo Sciolis, who misses not a piano note or beat. Choreographer Nicholas’ has created some jaunty dance steps tailored to cast talents as well.
Greg Tillery’s lighting design is thoroughly professional. Scenic designer Nikita Maxwell’s set has some clever touches too. Barry Schwam’s sound design works also, particularly given the Sierra Madre Playhouse’s splendid acoustics.
Stage manager Ashley Jo Navarro bookends each act as an English version of herself, though the onstage role is superfluous. Cast members Cook, Candell, and Barrio-Buchman double as (respectively) production manager, dialect coach, and prop mistress.
Based on the positive reviews garnered by Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore a couple years back, it must have made perfect sense for the Sierra Madre Playhouse to program another somewhat lesser-known G&S operetta as part of their 2014 season. Having now seen The Gondoliers, I would have recommended going in a different direction.
Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.
May 23, 2104
Photos: Ward Calaway (also co-producer), Gina Long
Note: All photos feature Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper in the role of Marco. Some feature ensemble member Bratz as Giuseppe.