The Austin Chronicle

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

Reviewed by Robert Faires, July 2, 2021, Arts

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

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