Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

First Impressions of the Fourth International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival

American Venues: Berkeley, California, June 14-22, 1997;
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 19-27, 1997.

by J. Donald Smith

Imagine a snow storm in Philadelphia at the end of July! Not outside -on stage. The highlight of the Festival so far (July 31) was the Derby Princess Ida with its first act staging out of "Dr. Zhivago" or "War and Peace." The Imperial Army in appropriate uniforms, the courtiers in Russian furs and a well thoughtout staging and pacing brought a different, but reasonable staging to an otherwise traditional Ida. A gorgeous Deborah Norman as Princess Ida whose superb voice (Best Female Singer) and perfect comic timing (one didn't know that the "Women of Adamant" speech was so humorous until this performance) kept everyone on the edge of their seats. With the other prizewinning performances of Peter Barlow as King Gama, Margaret Ascomb as Lady Blanche and the award for Best Chorus, this is the show to beat (despite a rather weak trio of Cyril, Florian and Hilarion). In many ways, it is the equal of the Festivalwinning Lamplighters Princess Ida of 1995.

For the first time since the First Festival, I was not able to attend all of the days of this year's threelegged Festival, so I have been asked to provide impressions, rather than a daybyday detailed account (and with a page limitation this time). Aided by "Dame Rumor" reporting what I did not see myself, I shall endeavor to provide the flavor of what took place in Berkeley and Philadelphia.

Memorable productions of The Zoo by the Stanford Savoyards, Trial by Jury by Chester County G&S Society and the Lamplighters Sorcerer seem to be the other productions which have drawn the most (positive) comment. The Lamplighters Sorcerer featured gorgeous 18thcentury costumes, elaborate scenery and fantastic special effects, but when these are taken away, I was left with impressions of a few great performers (Alexis and Aline) and not much else; in other words: "Where's the beef?" It was a Broadway or West End extravaganza.

The other amateur productions ranged from the strong (Binghampton Yeomen -excellent cast marred by excruciatingly slow tempi; and Stanford Gondoliers -nice but the usual problems of a college company) to the decent (South Anglia Patience -a nice performance but nothing special, a bit of a disappointment from last year's winners) to the ones with problems (GASPUMP Zoo -strong soloists but sloppy chorus as one might expect from a pickup group which had only 5 or 6 rehearsals; Montreal West Utopia -decent cast done in by poor direction, enjoyable but not one of which I would buy the video; Northern Savoyards Pirates -soloists who have performed their roles so long in one way that they refused the imaginative direction created for them and creaked their way through.) Nonetheless, every production had some merit and every amateur production but one received at least one award. (This year there are separate awards for each leg of the Festival for individual performers, not productions. There will be overall winners as well.)

The Festival Club venues left much to be desired in both locations. That in Berkeley was about four long blocks (uphill) from the theatre in an oldfashioned auditorium with tables crowded in. Since it was never more that half full, removing some tables would have made more sense but nothing could have changed the sterile atmosphere. Philadelphia was better -only one block from the theatre and hotel but the configuration of the piano and 'stage' near the bar meant that the talking tended to drown out too much of the action. Stanford, Lamplighters and Derby gave very entertaining cabarets but the potluck opera singthroughs on other nights did not attract too much enthusiasm.

Ian Smith's (the Festival Director) new Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company performed Mikado, Pinafore and Cox and Box. The company is a mixture of oldtime D'Oyly Carte stars -Gillian Knight (magnificent as Katisha and Little Buttercup), Valerie Masterson (her first Festival appearances, YumYum and Josephine), Kenneth Sandford (Captain Corcoran), Gareth Jones (the Bos'n, PoohBah and Cox), Alistair Donkin (Sir Joseph Porter) and Michael Rayner (Dick Deadeye, the Mikado and Sergeant Bouncer), one star of the New D'Oyly Carte -Eric Roberts (KoKo), and some new blood -Peter Mulloy (PishTush), Janet Cowley (Cousin Hebe and PeepBo), Rebecca Knight (PittiSing) and Adrian Martin (a disaster as Ralph Rackstraw and NankiPoo).

That last remark calls for some comment. Martin did not know his lines and seemed to upset everyone else with his drying and extrapolations. Only Gillian Knight (among the oldtimers) gave the truly professional performance which the audience had paid higher prices to see. The only benefit of Martin's inability to learn his part was that he withdrew (or was withdrawn?) from Cox and Box and 82year old Thomas Round stepped in on two days notice and gave a masterful performance in Berkeley (which he repeated in Philadelphia.) That the voice is not what it used to be is obvious but he can still put over a role and some of his younger colleagues could stand to follow his example of professionalism.

Al Bergeret's New York G&S Players, a professional company, put on a superb Pirates of Penzance in Philadelphia -tight, fastpaced, colorful, the cast word perfect, and with some imaginative staging on top of a traditional production. While there were some things which were over the top (and unauthorized, as Mr. Bergeret stated during his Master Class the next morning), it is clear that it is this kind of G&S production which will win new converts to the cause, not the generally lackadaisical productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company -very traditional with a few new ideas, slow tempi and, as mentioned, the sloppiness. (Most of the audience was clearly not attuned to the finer details, or didn't care; they enjoyed the productions and were very enthusiastic.) But, if the new company is seriously going to be a 3040 week touring company, then it is the younger performers (coached by the oldtimers) who will do it. It will also obviously need a professional chorus: different choruses for each opera in Berkeley and in Philadelphia can not have helped the discipline. Yes, it was nice to see the former D'Oyly Carte stars in harness, particularly for those people who had never had the opportunity to see them, but, as the saying goes: "nostalgia isn't what it used to be."

The biggest disappointments clearly had to be the attendance. Berkeley was the wrong venue -the daytime activities drew some 2030 attendees and a few were cancelled when no one showed up; the attendance in the 2000seat Zellerbach Theatre was poor except for the last few days. We learned while there that the San Francisco Bay Area does not tend to support reperatory theatre nor does it go much during the week; it showed. The distances, the traffic and the ticket prices discouraged many who would have liked to attend more.

Philadelphia was somewhat better. The Professional performances drew well but the amateur ones did not. The theatre was much more hospitable -1000 seats and the Master Classes and other daytime activities (Tom Round's "Fifty Years in the Theatre," Janet Cowley's "Dear Jessie" -a onewoman show about Jessie Bond and others) were enjoyable and drew quite well. But the excitement which was present last year, at the first appearance of the Festival in the United States, was generally absent.

At the moment the fate the Festival in the United States would appear to be in doubt. Ian Smith was quoted in a Philadelphia paper, when asked how it was going replied: Not as well as he had hoped, not as badly as he had feared. He is seeking some $100,000 in donations in order to bring the Festival back to Philadelphia next year (asking those in Philadelphia who convinced him to come back this year to "put their money where their mouth is.") If it does, he indicated to me that it would be earlier in the summer to give him and his staff time between the two parts of the festival.

One of the great pleasures I have found in attending the Festival for four years is in the friends I have made. There is something about Gilbert and Sullivan which attracts nice people (all right, there are a few exceptions.) Berkeley and Philadelphia were enjoyable from my point of view as an audience member and for the socializing, but there is nothing like Buxton!

Page created 5 Aug 1997