The people in this show love Gilbert and Sullivan, and you can feel it in every moment
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., June 19, 2009
Travis High School, through June 21
Running time: 2 hr, 30 min
Summer in Austin brings many special things, and one of them is the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Austin's annual production of one of the 14 classic comic operas that the two Englishmen penned in the late 19th century. This summer's show is one of the lesser-known works, Iolanthe.
The story concerns a group of fairies, one of whom, Iolanthe, breaks a fairy law and marries a mortal. Together they have a son, Strephon, who is fairy from the waist up and mortal from the waist down, but Iolanthe is exiled for violating fairy law, and by the time she is pardoned, Strephon is a grown man of 25, while Iolanthe, being a fairy, has remained 17. Being a grown man and mortal from the waist down, Strephon is in love with Phyllis, a ward of the Lord Chancellor, and wants to marry her, but there's a problem: Everyone in the House of Lords wants to marry Phyllis, including the Lord Chancellor himself.
While I'll resist revealing more of the plot, I won't resist admitting that I love Gilbert and Sullivan. No, I don't sit around listening to recordings, and I don't head out the door to see any production that might hit the boards, but every time I can recall seeing one of their works, I have enjoyed it. This Iolanthe is no exception. Yes, some of the voices are too weak to handle Sullivan's operatic score, but some are strong, particularly those of Lisa Alexander, who presents a stout and robust Fairy Queen, and June Julian, who stuns while singing what must be one of the most beautiful songs in the canon, "My Lord, a Suppliant at Your Feet." And while some of the actors strain at the broad, satiric style required to sell Gilbert's material, some, such as Russell Gregory as the preening Private Willis and Meredith Ruduski as the fickle-yet-plucky Phyllis, absolutely nail it. Add set designer Ann Marie Gordon's beautiful woodland and London drops and costume coordinator Pam Friday's more-than-appropriate costumes, which include so many sprouting fairy wings you'll feel the whole stage might just elevate and fly away, and you have a much more than satisfactory evening of 19th century fun.
But here's what really gets me about these GSSA folks: There's a love for the material that's palpable. While Jeffrey Jones-Ragona is certainly a professional conductor and the experience and knowledge Rafe MacPhail Jr. brings to the direction is palpable in every moment of the production, the people on the stage aren't professionals in the usual sense of the word. You'll certainly hear some professional voices, but no one up there is making a living doing this. They're doing it for love, and it's a love I could feel in every moment of the evening, from the time the audience is asked to (properly) sing "God Save the Queen" until the final bow. They love it, and I love them for doing it. And my bet is you will as well.