The Satire's Still Timely in Gilbert & Sullivan Austin's Iolanthe

And the topsy-turvy team's show delivers a fanciful fairy tale, to boot


Shelby Schisler's Iolanthe (l) kneels before Bethany Ammon's Queen of the Fairies. (Photo by Gilbert & Sullivan Austin)
Picture it: Todd Rundgren, Isaac Asimov, and Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist walk into the Savoy Theatre in London's West End together. The everyday world may not see them as likely companions, but the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert & Sullivan recognizes all three as fans of the duo's comic opera Iolanthe and welcomes them with open arms. Each leaves inspired: Rundgren to record his own rendition of "Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song" for the 1974 album Todd; Asimov to pen the Hugo Award-winning and hugely influential Foundation trilogy; and Rehnquist to snazz up his judicial robes with four gold stripes, similar to those worn by the opera's Lord Chancellor.

In the lobby after the show, the trio spots a young Lin-Manuel Miranda, who snuck in to listen through the closed theatre doors. Later, he sneaks out and pays homage to Gilbert & Sullivan, in name and in deed, in his acclaimed musical Hamilton. (Remem­ber George Washington singing that he is "the very model of a modern major general"?) These all serve as fitting tributes to Gilbert & Sullivan's work, given their deep (and recurring) satirical jabs at government, law, and society.

“It is surprising how a barb intended for 19th-century England can so effectively hit the mark of political and social situations in 21st century America.” – Gilbert & Sullivan Austin Board President Libby Weed

Gilbert & Sullivan Austin, which has been serving up its own tributes to the pair locally since 1976, turns again this season to the fanciful Iolanthe. The team's seventh collaboration, first performed in 1882, features a story that is at times just as absurd and confusing as the fantastical scenario created above. The titular heroine is a fairy (here played by Shelby Schisler) who has been banned from Fairyland for committing the ultimate crime: marrying a mortal. Iolanthe's son, Strephon (Holton Johnson), is a shepherd who wants to marry the fetching young shepherdess Phyllis (Angela Irving) – as do half of the members of the House of Peers (aka the UK's House of Lords). That includes the pompous Lord Chancellor (Arthur DiBianca), who forbids their union because ... as the living embodiment of a British stiff-upper-lip, of course he does. Hijinks soon ensue when the worlds of fay and mortal meet.

Now in his 18th season with GSA, Artistic Director Ralph MacPhail Jr. knows better than most the challenges of staging a Gilbert & Sullivan production. The greatest piece of advice he can pass along to those new to the team is "perhaps trusting the material. [They] should avoid the trap of thinking the works have to be made funny by adding exaggerated costumes, nonsensical physical activity, or by turning them into 'concept' shows." The comedy is right there in W.S. Gilbert's words.

And in Sir Arthur Sullivan's music, notes Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, returning for his 22nd season as GSA music director. Though he admits what Sullivan does in the music can be subtle. "In Iolanthe, I spotted a number of clever devices – leitmotifs, etc. – that aren't necessarily apparent on first listen, but do help the audience make certain connections and track the rather complicated plot." For instance, because the Lord Chancellor embodies the law, Jones-Ragona says, "every time he appears, it is to a strict fugue, one that adheres to all those pesky rules that are the bane of music undergrad theory classes."

Speaking of the Lord Chancellor, this stuffy aristocrat is proof that Iolanthe, like many of Gilbert & Sullivan's works, has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek when it comes to depictions of politics and the law. But that's all based on old news and overseas stuff and nonsense. What will audiences in Austin today think of their satire? Eternal optimist MacPhail Jr. says, "I think they will love it! In Iolanthe, Private Willis muses on Parliamentary politicians as he guards Westminster Palace:

When in that House MPs divide,

If they've a brain and cerebellum, too,

They've got to leave that brain outside,

And vote just as their leaders tell 'em to.

"Sounds rather contemporary, doesn't it?"

GSA Board President Libby Weed concurs. "It is surprising how a barb intended for 19th-century England can so effectively hit the mark of political and social situations in 21st century America," she says.

Not to fear though, parents! The wee ones can also find something to delight in with Gilbert & Sullivan, even after almost 150 years. "Younger people actually respond to [them] very well," says Jones-Ragona. "Children especially find their shows enjoyable, in much the way that they love the classic cartoons of the Forties and Fifties.

"Although the humor derives from what seem to be absurd situations taken very seriously by the characters, they are nonetheless identifiable and sympathetic," Jones-Ragona adds.

So how'd these two geniuses do it? What explains the enduring charm of Gilbert & Sullivan? How'd they manage to earn fans from every corner of the cultural world, and how do they still win folks over today? If MacPhail Jr. is to be believed, part of what keeps G&S going may stem from the one thing that grabs us all more than a night out: filthy lucre. "This remarkable partnership was a commercial enterprise," MacPhail Jr. says candidly. "They weren't writing for posterity; they were writing for Saturday." Nevertheless, he and the duo's legions of fans still find joy in something a little less mercenary. "Sullivan's music remains delightful, Gilbert's talent remains sparkling, and the characters and their stories have universal appeal. To quote Gilbert, 'They wake up beautifully.'"


Gilbert & Sullivan Austin’s Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri runs through June 23. Thu.-Sat., 7:30 pm; Sat. & Sun., 2pm, at Worley Barton Theater at Brentwood Christian School, 11908 N. Lamar. For more information, visit www.gilbertsullivan.org.

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