Fresh Takes on Gilbert & Sullivan by Gilbert & Sullivan Austin

The company's series of unconventional spins on the comic operas actually do the duo a service

Courtesy of Gilbert & Sullivan Austin

Ah yes, that's "Fair moon, to thee I sing" from HMS Pinafore, a number sung by that ship's commander, Captain Corcoran, and the singer here, wearing the kind of naval uniform we expect the good captain to wear, is capturing Corcoran's melancholy in the loveliest mezzo soprano ... wait, what? The captain's part was written for a lyric baritone. This seaman is a she, man. What's more, there's no sea to see, only rusted old buses, trailers, and cars in an automotive graveyard.

Who's tinkering with Gilbert & Sullivan?

Gilbert & Sullivan Austin, that's who. The very group that for 45 years has prided itself on hewing to tradition in its productions of G&S' popular comic operas is getting all experimental with them. The evidence is its new video series Fresh Takes on Gilbert & Sullivan, in which the first episode treats us not only to a female Captain Corcoran roaming a junkyard but also Mad Magaret with an iPhone, an accordion accompanying the ingenues in Ruddigore, a present-day doctor at Austin City Hall whose "little list" calls out pandemic deniers and liars, and three little maids from school, one of whom works at an office, one of whom lifts weights, and one of whom is a drag queen. And that's just the tip of this topsy-turvy iceberg. The end of the first episode promises future installments with G&S performed in Spanish and American Sign Language, with revised orchestrations, with rewritten lyrics, and with improv.

The party most responsible for all these G&S variations – whether you give him credit or blame may depend on how much of a purist you are – is the man puckishly enticing us with those fresh takes to come: Michael Meigs, a member of the company's board (and a colleague of mine in the Austin Critics Table), who approached some local directors and performers about putting their own spin on a musical number from the duo's repertoire and making a video of it. Meigs isn't one to tear down the edifices of theatre, as readers of his considered, generous criticism on will know, and these directors reflect that. However far they may stray from the D'Oyly Carte model, they aren't savaging the source.

On the contrary, they're doing G&S a service. In Margaret Jumonville's medley of numbers from HMS Pinafore, Ellie Jarrett Shattles' tender rendition of "Fair moon, to thee I sing" renews one's appreciation for the beauty of Sir Arthur Sullivan's music. It's further energized by Abigail Jackson's impassioned delivery of "The hours creep on apace." The same goes for Meigs' own fresh take on the solo "The sun, whose rays are all ablaze," where Susan Johnston Taylor performs before landscape paintings by Barb Jernigan, so that Taylor's bright, fluttering soprano seems to be chasing Sullivan's soaring music high into the sky.

Rudy Ramirez takes on a scene from Ruddigore in which the shy ingenues who have yet to express their love for each other talk around their feelings by asking for advice about their lovesick friends, and his staging of it as a late Twenties talkie – shot in black and white with title cards – distills the scene to a rom-com and reminds us how deftly W.S. Gilbert wrote them before Hollywood was ever a thing. Even when Gilbert's words are taken away, as they are in Trey Deason's scene about the COVID-times M.D. at the press conference, we're reminded that he wasn't penning comedy about some distant past but was satirizing his own time. When the front-line physician namechecks "the pestilential nuisances who write the news for Fox, and the proud boys who're so smug and self-important with their talks, and all the rumormongers and the plotters who persist" as folks who won't be missed, "they'll none of 'em be missed," we may be reminded that "the very model of a modern Major General" was mocking an actual general, and so were many of G&S' other greatest hits.

These excerpts from the originals may not look like Gilbert & Sullivan as we think of them, and yet they're true in spirit to the originals: questioning social customs, spoofing authority figures and those who lord it over others, finding beauty in music, making us laugh. As with a lot of productions of Shakespeare that strip it of Elizabethan garb, these nuggets of Gilbert & Sullivan in reworked settings create a different context that help us see and hear the original work better, maybe even get close to it for the first time. It seems of our time, something new. Fresh, indeed.

Fresh Takes on Gilbert & Sullivan
Through July 15

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Gilbert & Sullivan Austin
Review: Gilbert & Sullivan Austin's <i>The McAdo</i>
Review: Gilbert & Sullivan Austin’s The McAdo
Spry rewrite of the classic operetta swaps kimonos for kilts

Bob Abelman, June 17, 2022

The Satire's Still Timely in Gilbert & Sullivan Austin's <i>Iolanthe</i>
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

M. Brianna Stallings, June 21, 2019

More Arts Reviews
Review: Broadway in Austin’s <i>My Fair Lady</i>
Review: Broadway in Austin’s My Fair Lady
Still bright, brassy, and enchanting, this production of the sharp-tongued classic musical still needs to fix its modern ending

Richard Whittaker, Dec. 8, 2023

Review: “The Dog Show”
Review: “The Dog Show”
Hiromi Stringer curates a fictitious, dog-obsessed museum in her current solo show

Meher Qazilbash, Dec. 8, 2023

More by Robert Faires
Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Lessons and surprises from a career that shouldn’t have been

Sept. 24, 2021

"Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams" Tells the Story of an Artist
The first-ever museum exhibition of Daniel Johnston's work digs deep into the man, the myths

Sept. 17, 2021


Gilbert & Sullivan Austin, Gilbert & Sullivan, W.S. Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan, Michael Meigs, Rudy Ramirez, Margaret Jumonville, Trey Deason, Barb Jernigan, Susan Johnston Taylor, Ellie Jarrett Shattles, Abigail Jackson

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle