Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
Philadelphia Diary, 1996
Day Four: Tuesday, July 23
Not From Scholastic Trammels Free
Pamela Leighton-Bilik, a middle school teacher from the suburbs of Washington, DC, gave a seminar on producing G&S in the schools. About a decade ago, Bilik hatched the idea of mounting an annual G&S production in her school. She received no support from the music or theater departments, and no financing. However, thanks to her own hard work and passion for the cause, she has built her annual shows into an institution, with roughly 150 children (and numerous adults, too) participating each year.
Students are required to audition, but-and she doesn't tell them this-no one is ever rejected. She has cast blind students, deaf students, Down's Syndrome students, and even students in wheel chairs. Bilik serves as both dramatics and musical director. The students generally sing in two-part harmony-there are few tenors and basses at this age-and more difficult musical passages are sometimes omitted (e.g., the three-against-two chorus in The Gondoliers), but the operas are given close to complete.
Lacking tangible support from the school itself, Bilik reaches out to the community. Sets are built by volunteers. Parents provide costumes, following Bilik's guidelines. Even the accompanist is a volunteer. Parents and other teachers occasionally fill in choruses (e.g. the police in Pirates). Rehearsals are held for an hour or so each day for four months, with performances given in the school gymnasium.
Bilik's objective is not to train a new generation of theater majors, but to provide an extra-curricular outlet for the substantial numbers of students who don't play sports (the only extra-curricular activity the school board funds). Through her productions, students build a sense of self-esteem, responsibility and teamwork.
Bilik's next challenge is to become a kind of G&S "Johnny Appleseed," spreading word of what she has done-and how she has done it-to other communities. Over the last thirty years, budget cuts have eviscerated theater and music education in the lower grades. Pamela Leighton-Bilik has shown that individuals, through their own efforts, can go a long way towards reversing that trend.
The Yeomen of the Guard, South Anglia Savoy Players
South Anglia Savoy Players, the only English society that made the trek to Philadelphia, is another of the four groups that have appeared at all three festivals to date. To be sure, South Anglia are no strangers to world travel, having presented G&S in Wales, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Malta. Their Yeomen sat the standard for the Festival's Philadelphia leg, with what all assumed would be the eventual winning production.
To be sure, David Turner seemed ready to concede the Festival Trophy to South Anglia with thirteen adjudicated performances yet to be given. He said, "Adjudication is unknown in America, but it is a cardinal rule of the adjudicator's profession never to applaud. Tonight, dammit, I'm going to applaud." With that, he threw his note pad to the floor and led a round of applause for South Anglia. He praised the masterful direction and called the performance "superb."
And superb it was, but while Mr. Turner was apparently giving it an A+, the people I queried awarded it an A-. The performance was full of wonderful details, beautifully executed in nearly all respects, to which only a few reservations must be added. Musical director Brian Brown never did quite get the orchestra under control, and I dare say not a single chorus ensemble number was without mishap. Brown also took the final chorus of Act I about 50% faster than usual, an innovation (perhaps cribbed from the recent Marriner recording) that strips Sullivan's masterful setting of its majestic grandeur.
South Anglia's talented veteran director, Derek Collins, is a master at moving characters on a stage. In every scene, the placement and spacing of the chorus was like a painting. The opening of the Act I finale was especially impressive, as battalions of Yeomen entered in formation from three separate directions. (It reminded me of the entry of the three cantons in Rossini's Guillaume Tell.) The opening of Act II was another highlight, as a minister entered followed by townspeople in twos and threes, whom he greeted, suggesting they'd all just been to church. Jack Point and Elsie Maynard entered in Act I not alone, but with a whole band of traveling players (jugglers, gymnasts), though the staging of "I have a song to sing, O" was a bit lame.
The production's one significant dramatic misjudgment was at the end of Act I. Elsie fainted into Fairfax's arms about thirty measures too early. He carried her off stage immediately, and the Yeomen disbursed to search out the culprit. The curtain thus fell on an empty stage, instead of the tableau that Gilbert wanted. The Act II finale was especially touching, with-for the first time that I can recall-a Fairfax who showed some sympathy for Point. (He was still no hero, though-chuckling and ribbing the Lieutenant while Elsie sang, "Leonard, my loved one, come to me."
Paul Lazell has won Best Male Performer at each of the first two festivals, and with his commanding Wilfred, he seemed well on his way to a hat trick. Elaine Lazell has a musical theater voice (the kind you expect will burst into "Memory, all alone in the moonlight" at the first opportunity), but once we got used to that, she gave us a puckish, gregarious Phoebe. Sally Brown sang Elsie with passionate conviction, but her face was fixed throughout in an expression of anger that seemed unsuited to the character. John Hebden was Point writ small; it was a capable performance, if only you could hear it. Mick Wilson was a highly self-assured Fairfax, and he sang "Free from his fetters grim" with a pathetic longing most tenors are not able to grasp, but he didn't look old enough to have accomplished all the brave exploits the other characters talk about. Eileen Barks-Marner was the perfect Dame Carruthers, conveying a stone-faced strength as great as the Tower itself.
South Anglia's Wilfred, Paul Lazell, was also the Festival Technical Director, which might explain why they had a better set than any other visiting company. I never did smoke out exactly how this was accomplished in a theater 3000 miles from home, but it was one of the best Yeomen sets I've seen. The back cloth was particularly striking, with a massive painting of the Great Tower itself and masted ships seen in the background. Lighting was masterful (as it was for all performances in which Mr. Lazell had a hand), the stage bathed throughout in a warm glow and transitions accomplished smoothly.
While many of us questioned the propriety of Mr. Turner all but conceding the Festival Trophy with thirteen nights of adjudication yet to go, most festival veterans agreed that it was difficult to conceive of the production that could beat this Yeomen.
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