Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
Philadelphia Diary, 1996
Day Three: Monday, July 22
Monday was Kenneth Sandford day. In the morning, he hosted an open "coffee and conversation" with questions and repartee provided by David Turner. In the afternoon, he led a master class. In the first session, he spent the bulk of the time on his pre-D'Oyly Carte career, which included substantial experience in West End musicals and music hall comedy. Details of his Carte career are too well-known to repeat here; the most interesting new tidbit (to me) was that he spent his first five years of his D'OC career trying to shed the role of the Sergeant of Police, which he felt was too low for him. When he offered to take a pay cut in return for giving up the part, they finally saw that he was serious and granted the request.
Like Peggy Ann Jones the day before, he expressed admiration for Papp's Pirates (but opined that the authentic company could have done it even better, if only they'd been allowed to). He also had no hesitation for laying the blame for the Company's failure solely with management. He described Dame Bridget as a lovely lady with not a jot of instinct for the theater. Once, she viewed a dress rehearsal and her only comment was that a certain singer had the wrong hat. The Company's costume department dutifully got her a new hat, and Dame Bridget was convinced that having the right hat made the lady a better performer.
In the last few years, Sandford has stayed active performing in G&S concert performances with his former colleagues, but he has declined to join the group's next tour on account of the atrocious working conditions to which they were subjected the last time they came to America. He's too old to put up with such indignity, he observed. He ended with a melancholy statement of how ancient he felt the night before, when he took off his Despard makeup and saw an old man in a gray beard.
He was full of energy at the master class, and I wondered where that energy had been the preceding evening, during Ruddigore. He took four students: VLOG's Nathan Hull (Wilfred Shadbolt's "When jealous torments"), Chester County G&S Society's Lois Alt ("Silvered is the raven hair"), Savoy Fare's Elizabeth Evans-Emery ("Sorry her lot") and Washington Savoyards' Pamela Leighton-Bilik ("A lady fair of lineage high"). Sandford focused on the text, repeatedly emphasizing the importance of adhering to Gilbert's exact words, and making each word count. In a recitative, for example, the singer should take her time, and not be bound to exact note values, so that every word is meaningful and clearly heard. Predictably, he spent the most time with Nathan Hull, since Shadbolt was one of his own parts.
Trial Without Jury (Western Australia)
That evening's main event was a study in contrasts. The G&S Society of Western Australia presented Trial Without Jury, a raucous, Monty Python-style low burlesque that was as fun as it was irreverent. Immediately following, the Chester County G&S Society presented as conservative a Pinafore as I have yet seen. That both succeeded speaks volumes for the durability of the G&S operas.
Trial Without Jury is an adaptation of Trial by Jury for five soloists and no chorus. The adjudicator called it "interesting," which probably means that he didn't like it, but couldn't deny that it was cleverly done and skillfully executed. After the opening chorus, there was an interpolated song for the Usher (written for this production, I later learned). Most people agreed that the opera would have been better without it. After that, it was all Gilbert and Sullivan, but with liberal changes to the lyrics. "Now jurymen, hear my advice" was rewritten as a duet in which the Counsel bribes the Usher in return for his cooperation, and the Usher exclaims, "Finance in Court!"
The Defendant was Eddie Stench, an Elvis look-alike. "Your evil star's in the ascendant" became "I left my bike with the attendant." During "Oh, will you swear," it was the Defendant, not the Jury, who was sworn in. "When first my old, old love I knew" was punctuated with pelvic thrusts that left no doubt where Eddie's thoughts lay. During "Oh gentlemen, listen, I pray," he flirted and made an assignation with a lady in the first row of the audience.
The Counsel was a woman, dressed in a modern business suit. "Oh, I was like that when a lad" became a solo for the Counsel, "My dad was like that when a lad." "Comes the broken flower" was sung by the Counsel. The Plaintiff was dressed like a girl from the Ziegfeld Follies, and it certainly appeared that she was ready to take any husband at all.
Two years ago, Ross Bryant, a school teacher from Australia, attended the First International G&S Festival in Buxton. He played the Major-General in the first Festival Production of Pirates and won the trophy for Best Character Actor that year. He promised Ian Smith he would bring an Australian group to a future festival, and not only did he keep that promise, but he also played the Judge with great distinction. During the Judge's song, he danced about the stage like a fire fly. Lines like "There's the judge and we're the jury" became "I'm the judge and I'm the jury." At the end of the opera, he said to the Usher, "Gentle, simple-minded failure, | Get you, if you like, to Australia."
In a full-length G&S opera, such horsing around would grow tedious. But, Trial is such a short work, and its satire is so broad to begin with, that it works here, especially when presented by five top-flight comedians. It was a fun-filled romp that left the audience roaring. I felt privileged to have seen it.
H.M.S. Pinafore (Chester County, USA)
If Western Australia's Trial stretched the outer limits of creativity, Chester County's Pinafore was a veritable monument to the G&S tradition. To those familiar with the opera's traditional D'Oyly Carte staging, it was as if we'd stepped into a time warp. Rumor has it that Bruce Montgomery, who directs the group, owns copies of the old D'Oyly Carte prompt books, and he seems to have followed them here with a devotion that, had it not been so thoroughly successful, might have been called slavish.
There are many risks in merely recreating an old production. Bits of business that worked for one performer may be completely unsuitable for another. Without the original director to explain the motivation, staging that once seemed inspired may seem dull. Prompt books may tell when the chorus should move from point A to point B, but they may not convey the subtleties that mean the difference between a magical performance and the simply routine.
Josephine was played by an actress of the first order, with a radiant smile and Nancy Drew looks. Her reassuring reactions to Ralph in the Act I finale, and her immediate grasp of the consequences of "A many years ago," were textbook examples of reacting in character even when not singing.
The Captain was from the stiff-upper-lip school. The interpretation was capably sung, but could have used more warmth. Hebe was dressed like the Daughter of the Regiment, and she created a vivid character. Deadeye was believably villainous. Buttercup had to work too hard, and she tended to bounce her arms in rhythm to the music. Sir Joseph was the weak link, playing up the effeminate side of the part to a point of caricature. His make-up made him look like a Seminole war chief.
The chorus work was superb, with perfect entrances and cutoffs, and all harmonies in balance. Movement was exceedingly spare, sometimes to excess (e.g., "Over the bright blue sea," during which the men just stood there waiting for the ladies to arrive).
The set would have pleased any professional company. It was as true-to-life a ship as you'll see on stage. Lighting was occasionally amateurish (an awfully quick sunrise after "He is an Englishman,"), but the night-time opening of Act II was lit beautifully. The director had a marvelous sense of color-juxtaposing Josephine's pastels and Hebe's primary colors, for example.
Creative productions like Western Australia's Trial Without Jury and traditional ones like Chester County's Pinafore are exciting for different reasons. In Trial Without Jury, the excitement came from the thrill of experiencing something new; in Pinafore, it came from the satisfaction of seeing an old art form revived with consummate skill. Together, they combined to give the Festival's best evening so far.
Page updated 16 June 1999