20 -- 28 July 1996, Philadelphia, PA, USA
4 -- 18 August, Buxton, England
by J. Donald Smith
I had not intended to do a review of the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival this year. Somehow during the course of the month of the events, my arm got twisted and this is the result. Of course there is nothing to stimulate the creative juices like knowing in advance that one's efforts will be published. There were many daytime activities but I will only note those which I fell were especially worthy of mention; the others were worthwhile also but I do not feel that simply saying that something took place merits the space. As I did last year, I offer my impressions, particularly those which have lasted, not a comprehensive evaluation of each and every performance. There were many highlights, a few unmemorable occasions, but overall an incredible month of pure immersion in Gilbert and Sullivan. (The four days back at work between the two legs of the Festival seem to have passed without a trace.)
Much to my surprise and delight, the Festival in Philadelphia proved to be as enjoyable an experience as my experiences in Buxton over the previous two years. The same and yet not the same. Much of the excitement was provided by those attendees who had heard about the first two Festivals but for whom this was their first experience. Instant camaraderie with fellow enthusiasts, long discussions "from morn to afternoon, from afternoon to night . . . " into the wee hours long after the Festival Club had closed at 2 a.m. made for a very fast week. What with daytime "Coffees and Conversations" and "Master Classes" with the former D'Oyly Carte stars (some of which I skipped since they were also to be presented in Buxton), movies ("The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan" and the 1966 D'Oyly Carte "Mikado") and various other lectures, the days were as full as were the evenings.
Since the Festival was in a big city, the pace was considerably more hectic than in Buxton. Once one got used to the concept that Philadelphia drivers tend to use pedestrians as moving targets, it was easy to get around. The distance between the various venues and the hotels meant one only went somewhere deliberately rather than merely wandering back and forth as one does in Buxton. The major deficiency was the lack of a central location for information and for rendezvous, a function served by the Pavilion in Buxton which was open almost all day. The only other major complaint I heard was that the final banquet was scheduled on Sunday -- meaning that many people from out of town who wanted to attend couldn't, since they had to return home to begin work again on Monday.
After the evening performances the Festival Club featured cabarets, performed by the amateur society which had performed (sometimes), or potluck productions of operas not being otherwise staged. The Club was very crowded and a difficult configuration and acoustics prevented the scheduled quizzes from happening. Thus there were growing pains associated with a new venue; the difficulties will no doubt be ironed out next year.
(Note: In the following descriptions I will use the American "Director" for the person responsible for the action on stage rather than the British "Producer." In the program many of the British productions describe the person responsible for the stage action as Director rather than Producer.)
The day began with the apparently obligatory church service of Thanksgiving for the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan. Poorly attended, since the publicity was only in the preliminary announcements, not the final program. A procession of performers in costume and assorted hangerpersons began at City Hall (wonderful acoustics in the courtyard). It proceeded down the center island of the Avenue of the Arts to the _a capella_ strains of "When a Foeman Bears his Steel" drawing the appropriate interest and television cameras and finished up at the Merriam Theatre for an afternoon of G&S singing.
The true Festival began with The Savoy Company of Philadelphia presentation of Patience. In the fashion of all its productions the company provided strong work by (most) soloists, most of whom tended to perform as though they were the only ones on stage, even during ensemble scenes and an unimaginatively staged chorus. The Patience was not "blythe and gay" and seemed to have a chip on her shoulder most of the evening. Excellent bunthorne and grosvenor. Wonderful costumes designed after many _genre_ paintings: Lady Angela with her copper red hair was dressed as Sergeant's "Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth." Grosvenor was Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" while sporting a peroxide blonde wig. The Adjudicator, David Turner, was as publically critical as I had ever heard him. I suppose that after making constructive criticisms of the company over the past few years, he felt the need to try to ensure that they might take the criticisms to heart. It was a decent enough performance and served to get the Festival off to a strong start. (Now if only they would spend the little extra effort in creating a unified production...)
The company presented an excellent cabaret to an overly full Festival Club. Flanders and Swann's "Hippopotamus Song" proved essentially the only number in a Festival Club over the entire Festival calling for an audience chorus.
A major daytime event for me and for many others was the Savoynet Coffee Morning -- Savoynet being the Gilbert and Sullivan Discussion Group on the Internet. Here was the opportunity to put faces with the names to whom we had been exposing ourselves (so to speak) over the past few years. All real people! There seemed to be about a 50% correlation between what one thought a person looked like and the reality.
Further daytime activity included the screening of the film "The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan," never before commercially available and now marketed by the Festival. Former D'Oyly Carter Peggy Ann Jones presented what was billed as a Master Class but was in reality mostly a conversation -- shortened by a serious asthma attack which landed her in the hospital for three days.
The evening brought the first of the performances by the stars of the former D'Oyly Carte Opera Company (not as Festival Director Ian Smith persists in introducing them as the Original Stars -- that would be a good trick.) This performance was a very under rehearsed Ruddigore. With the inclusion of Simon Butteriss from the New D'Oyly Carte (among other activities) with old timers Geoffrey Shovelton, Kenneth Sandford, John Ayldon, among others, the performance took on a new dimension. Also appearing for the first time in a production at the Festival was Gillian Knight as Dame Hannah. Like fine wine, she gets better with age (which in her case is much younger than that of her contemporaries since she joined the D'Oyly Carte when she was so young.)
The production, directed by Roberta Morrell, gave us such novelties as Mad Margaret as an alcoholic bag lady (Patricia Leonard said at her morning Coffee that she couldn't see herself in the diaphanous costume more appropriate for 18 year olds), Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd as Dracula in the Act II opening scene, as well as a touch of the Rocky Horror Picture Picture Show.
Trial without Jury from Western Australia was obviously non traditional: one either loved it or hated it. Imagine the Defendant as an Elvis impersonator and the Plaintiff as a pink, feathery, fluffy, aging demimondaine. Add in the Judge singing "Monster dread my fury, I'm the Judge and I'm the jury" and you might just begin to get an idea of this performance. It was probably too early in the Festival for this kind of show and it might have gone off better as a Cabaret performance rather than being part of the competetive Festival. The adjudicator really had some problem in deciding what to say about it.
The accompanying Pinafore from Chester County (PA) was bright and lively and featured some very strong performances, in particular that of John Dennison as Captain Corcoran. That he is a former D'Oyly Carte chorister (now reverted to amateur status) didn't hurt. The midshipmite acted as a full member of the crew throughout the show, while the crew themselves were recruited from all parts of the British Empire. The Cousins and Aunts too gave evidence of Sir joseph's ancestors having spent much time in overseas service.
The Trial/Pinafore also had the largest attendance of the week and how the organizers thought they could attract crowds without a Mikado or Pirates is hard to fathom.
In contrast to the previous two Festivals, the winner came early this year. (My diary written on the night says "Should be the winner.") South Anglia Savoy Players' production of Yeomen of the Guard was the spectacular and emotional highlight this year. I have rarely at any theatrical performance and never before at a Gilbert and Sullivan event been as emotionally moved as I was by this production and performance.
While the performance was not perfect (is there any such thing as a 'perfect performance?'), the high pitch and tension created by an incredible cast of performers made for an unforgettable evening. As a bonus, there were so many original touches to the production that I scarcely know where to begin: The ships' masts visible at one side of the Tower (not quite original -- they are used in the Yeomen clips in the film "The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan"); two Yeomen crossing at the back of the stage as the Merylls are plotting their treason; having the Yeomen enter as companies in the Act I finale rather than en masse; having the cast coming out of church during the Act II musical introduction; having Col. Fairfax speak to Phoebe during his second act entrance: "Two days gone and no news of poor Fairfax. The dolts! They seek him everywhere save with a dozen yards of his dungeon." Phoebe leaves, with Fairfax then delivering his lines about rushing headlong into matrimony.
Paul Lazell as Wilfred Shadbolt was spectacular (winner of the Best Character Actor award -- his third Festival award. And is it any accident that he has been the first person up each year to perform in a Master Class to get whatever touches he can to improve his performance?) Sally Brown as Elsie Maynard brought a new dimension to the role. She was truly angry and shocked on Jack Point's line "For my part I consent. It is for Elsie to speak." That none of the other performers quite came up to their level on this occasion went unnoticed.
The Act II finale also bears special mention. There was a blackout between the end of "Rapture, Rapture" and the beginning of "Comes a Pretty Young Bride" to indicate the passage of time -- unusual, obvious and effective. After Colonel Fairfax finished acting like a cad, the lights dimmed and Jack Point entered quite alone. With his impassioned performance, he brought the rest of the characters back to the reality of the situation, leaving them quite shocked at his death and their role in it (by ignoring him.) Fairfax and Elsie knelt with the dying Point at the Finale with Point passing Elsie's hand to Fairfax giving her to him. Curtain.
Through a quirk in the lighting, it appeared that Point was not even there on the first curtain call. He was, but the apparent absence made for a rather stark conclusion. With only a single additional curtain (no acknowledgment for the conductor or orchestra), the high emotional tension lasted even into the adjudication, where David Turner violated protocol by applauding.
Morning Coffee and Conversation with David Turner which gave the American audience the opportunity to hear more about the adjudication process which is so foreign to amateur theater in this country.
The evening gave us the revival of "The Sorcerer," the production of which was presented last year by the oldtime D'Oyly Carters. It was a very much better performance. According to Alistair Donkin, the large stage in Philadelphia, compared to that in Buxton, gave more scope for the melodramatic acting which is characteristic of this piece and let the performers give their actions "full play."
The Three Princesses (Tennyson's The Princess; Gilbert's The Princess and G&S' Princess Ida) read and performed by Oberlin College G&S Players proved the only disappointment of this part of the Festival. It was an intriguing concept of presenting the same story through three very different literary creations, but putting the concept into action proved well beyond the capacity of the director Gayden Wren to create even the minimally competent productions.
Tennyson's "The Princess" provided the background for Gilbert's two 'respectful perversions.' Dramatization was carried out by seven readers who presented a section of the poem in turn, interrupted by effective musical performance of the songs -- two with settings by Sullivan. After the three and a half hour event we adjourned to the Merriam Theater for "The Princess." It is a farce which means that timing, above all else, is critical. While is was interesting to listen to familiar lines in an unfamiliar setting, the under rehearsed production was a disappointment and we adjourned for the short break before the opera with a sense of foreboding.
After a strong overture, and the musical direction was about the only thing which gave any sense of credibility to this production, the curtain rose on the opening scene: all of the women were on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor, and singing into it. Apparently the Director's concept was that in Medieval Times women were treated badly, so this was his way of showing it: noblewomen and servants alike scrubbing. That several well endowed young ladies wearing lowcut dresses with inadequate foundation garments created a spectacle for the audience was hopefully unintended. The production went downhill from there.
With all of the cast having been in "The Princess" and some in the Poetry Reading as well, it was impossible that they could have had much left for the opera. In addition, other companies had a full day to rehearse and adapt their production to the large stage. This group obviously did not, so that instead of restaging exits and entrances to use the full stage, all were made through a black curtain at the back, making a chorus exit look like nothing so much as a rugby scrum. No one backstage even bothered to open the curtain for them so there was much groping for the opening.
While there were a few original thoughts in the production, they were so badly staged as to render them meaningless. Princess Ida sang "Minerva" to the new students as a quasi religious ceremony. But the sight of several attractive women changing clothes on stage (to the students' uniforms) distracted from what was the best sung number of the evening. At the end of the Act III battle Hilarion was the only one left standing an interesting interpretation. But after scanning the carnage around him, he dejectedly walked to the back of the stage and assumed a head down position which looked for all the world as if he were peeing aginst the back wall. It was _that_ kind of production.
One of the more polite lines heard after the very long day (12:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. with only two 30 minute breaks, no intermissions in the play or opera, and some of the same performers in all three casts, this after a 15hour rehearsal the day before) was "This amounts to child abuse." Another line heard: "Who would have thought at the beginning of the day that the best activity would be a reading of a Tennyson poem?" There was some good raw talent in the cast which a good director could have brought out. As it was, the cast will have to bear the stigma of the production for something which was not their fault.
Besides the very informative and entertaining Coffee and Conversation and Master Class with Geoffrey Shovelton, there was a talk by Frederic Woodbridge Wilson, former Curator of the Gilbert and Sullivan Collection at the Pierpont Morgan Library and now Curator of Harvard Theater Collection, on "Authentic G&S Performance." Using photographs and drawings as well as contemporary newspaper accounts of the original productions, Ric ably demonstrated that what is thought of as "D'Oyly Carte tradition" is, in most cases, the accretion of small changes through the years which has led to great variance from what was originally presented.
The Gondoliers presented by the Hancock County Maine G&S Society provided a very welcome antidote to the disappointment of the previous day. For the first time that I have seen the Gondoliers, I actually felt that I was in Venice. Bright, lively and colorful. The award for Most Animated Chorus was well earned and deserved. The production featured such original touches as the girls weaving May Poles to "Now ye know, ye dainty roses, why we bind you into posies..." MOST effective. Tessa and Gianetta were part of the opening chorus and established their 'right' to Marco and Giuseppe by pulling daggers on the rest of the girls. Marco and Giuseppe 'recognized' their girls by 'feeling' them.
Normally when the opening scene has ended, there seems to be a letdown in pace and energy with the arrival of the Ducal party. Not this time. And a more down and out set of nobles was never seen before. The Duke was constantly dipping snuff while the Duchess was constantly in his face. Don Alhambra was as much of a lecher as seems to be normal for this role now but was a bit more introverted and menacing -- after all, he IS the Grand Inquisitor. And how did he know that Luiz' mother had been the king's nursemaid? He was skulking at the back of the set during the opening dialog between Luiz and casilda. (An up to date Grand Inquisitor indeed!) It was not much of a surprise, then, that during the final scene, The Grand Inquisitor and Inez constantly exchanged looks, both of them ending up behind Luiz and Casilda as the powers behind the throne. As always with this company it was a strong ensemble performance if a trifle weak in the dance choreography. Competent but not great soloists, constantly supporting each other in bringing out their strengths.
The Festival Production of Iolanthe, directed by Barbara Heroux, Director of last year's winning Princess Ida was imaginative, colorful and immensely enjoyable for all that its production was fraught with difficulties. Very few people auditioned for the chorus so that Peers and fairies were being added up to Friday. That Barbara was able to achieve miracles and make a large stage look full with a cast of only 26 total is a credit to her abilities. (Of course, if the Festival Production had been one of the better known operas, there might have been a greater turnout. Performers take note of the possibilities of getting into the chorus for next year.)
Many highlights: of special note was the work of Susan Baushke as Phyllis and Steven Arvinites as Strephon, the latter the surprise winner as Best Male Performer. Of course, anyone performing opposite such a Phyllis would have been stimulated to higher levels. It is worth the price of the videotape to hear her exclaim: "Which half?" in response to his admission that he is half a fairy! I have never heard a better combination of the two. Their performance was really that of two people in love with each other. Betsy Walker as the Fairy Queen (Best Character Actress) redeemed herself after her rather lackluster performance as Lady Jane in the Savoy Company's Patience.
The performers from Iolanthe presented the Cabaret this evening. Many highlights of which the best was one of Barbara Heroux' famous (or infamous) parodies. This one was "Three Little Smiths on Tour" to the tune of "Three Little Maids." It got all the laughs it deserved.
The repeat performance of Ruddigore was considerably better than the first. Additional rehearsal as well as recovery from jet lag seemingly did the trick.
The final banquet was as enjoyable as those in previous years which ended the Festival. With a fire the night before forcing a change in venue to a much smaller room in the Warwick Hotel, one got to know one's tablemates at very close quarters and the organizers _would_ keep selling tickets up to the last minute. An open bar helped assuage tempers even though there was only one bartender for the more than 150 attendees -- most of whom were either in G&S costume or formal dress, as the occasion warranted.
With the split Festival this year an added novelty was the announcement of some of the award nominees from this part of the Festival. Only those present at the dinner were so announced -- there were others in the final listings. Some suggestions were floated then, and have been since, that there should be awards for each part of the Festival to give some acknowledgment of work well done. I hope not. With the Festival to be in three parts next year such a division might only serve to fragment further the concept of a single entity. (What would it mean to have won in a category in Philadelphia , for example, with someone else winning the overall Festival title?)
Perhaps the greatest compliment was paid to the Festival some time during one of the last evenings. I was told by one person that initially she had thought that I (and others) were crazy, not only for having been to the first two Festivals but for doing both Philadelphia and Buxton this year. By this time however, she really understood what the Festival was all about and was sorry that she wasn't going off to England too.
For those of us who had attended the previous two G&S Festivals, the major questions for this year were whether the novelty would be off and whether maturity of the Festival would be enough to sustain it for the future. Happily the answers seem to be yes and yes, although it did seem as though many people were already taking the Festival for granted.
In contrast to previous year, and to Philadelphia, there seemed to be relatively few people around during the day. Most of the daytime events (coffee and conversations with the Festival personalities, master classes, talks, films, excursions) were not very well attended. Perhaps with only one American company this year (as opposed to four in 1995), there was not the critical mass needed, except on the weekends, to give the impression of a full town. Daytime activities did pick up once the Seattle and Brussels companies arrived. Happily, the evening performances were very well attended (the Festival organizers announced greater than 90% sellout for the two weeks). There were many whom I knew who commuted daily and many of the performing companies brought their own cheering sections, but relatively few people were present for the entire two weeks of the Festival.
The afternoon began with the now traditional costume parade around Buxton followed by the Big Sing in the Octagon. Principals from some societies put on Act I finales with the audience providing an enthusiastic chorus.
Tonight was pure nostalgia with the former D'Oyly Carte Stars doing Cox and Box and Trial by Jury. Geoffrey Shovelton, Gareth Jones and Michael Raynor recreated their roles immortalized on the recording and no one minded a bit that the streets of Buxton are still littered with all the lines they dropped. The performance was highlighted by a too vigorously flung chop which stuck to the scenery outside the window, then slowly slithered its way down to the delight of those who could see that side of the stage. Those of us who couldn't had to have it explained at intermission.
The Trial by Jury was very much in the spirit of the old D'Oyly Carte "Last Nights" where unusual things were sure to happen. Sure enough, John Ayldon as the Usher but dressed as Dick Deadeye acted as a Master of Ceremonies in introducing the cast -- all former D'Oyly Carters, some household names, some not as well known (at least to those of us from across the pond who only know the performers who toured extensively in the States or through their recordings.) All were in costume, having nothing to do with their roles in the opera: Ralph Mason -- the Defendant -- as the Duke of Dunstable, Michael Raynor -- the Foreman -- as Sergeant of Police, Kenneth Sandford -- the Counsel -- as Wilfrid Shadbolt, Alistair Donkin -- the Judge -- as KoKo, PeggyAnn Jones as Mad Margaret, Ann Sessions as Gianetta, Roberta Morrell as Lady Sangazure, Mary Sansom -- the Plaintiff -- as Phyllis and many others. Of all the sopranos present Mary Sansom was apparently chosen for the role of the Plaintiff since her name has the correct number of syllables: "Oh, Mary Sansom! Come thou into court!" The loudest and longest applause was for Jean Hindmarsh, dressed appropriately as Princess Ida, who has long been absent from the Gilbert and Sullivan scene. The performance was very much in the spirit of the occasion. Good fun, not a particularly musical event -- no one minded.
The Festival Club is in a new location this year: much more room, food service throughout most of the evening -- and not just pie and peas! The acoustics and a poor sound system made for some difficulty (as I discoverd when I was asked to run a few quizzes later in the week.) There was a big band for dancing, although few indulged tonight. Mostly an older crowd. Must have been those Monday morning jobs awaiting the younger set.
One of the many new features this year was the afternoon presentation of a children's Gondoliers by the Sonoma Valley (California) Children's Chorale. A cutdown version presented in the Paxton Theatre (former site of the Festival Club), not the main stage, provided the cast of 41 ranging in age from 617 a chance to show off what the next generation of Savoyards could do. And to do them credit, they did it extremely well. Bright, lively and fun. A disgracefully small audience -- only 80 or so of a capacity of 300. The word did get out however so that the repeat presentation on Tuesday drew an almost full house.
This evening brought the first real surprise of the Festival -- the presentation of the Mikado by the Derby Gilbert and Sullivan Company in full Kabuki style. Not just makeup and costumes, but scenery, movement and gestures provided a most unusual and well done production. The simple but effective set with multiple curtains allowed for gradual lifts and drops to reveal or hide characters in turn -- a very different way of getting performers on and off stage. The only thing which really marred the performance was the speaking voice of the Mikado who used caricature Japanese broken English which totally spoiled the image and destroyed the tension which exists at his first dialog. The production featured rewritten "Little List" and "More Humane Mikado." Both were delivered flawlessly, the first was extremely effective, the second less so. A troupe of Temple Dancers (usually associated with Bali or Thailand) were much in evidence during the uptempo choruses and brought some youth and vigor to the proceedings. I have decided that while it was a wonderful performance (and I did purchase the video), "The Mikado" really needs more spontaneity than such a structured production can provide. It thoroughly deserved the Special Adjudicator's Award which was presented.
After a rainy morning (yes, the rains did come to Buxton this year) a coachload of us went off to Chatsworth House, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire on a halfday excursion. The rain stopped on our arrival and we had the opportunity to explore the house and grounds of a splendid mansion. The artwork and furnishings would grace any museum.
This evening brought the performance of "The Sorcerer" by the Cardiff Gilbert and Sullivan Society. I suspect that it must be quite difficult presenting the same show that is also being given by professionals, even though the D'Oyly Carte performance was not until the following week -- and on the same set, too. Suffice it to say that unfortunately the apparent nervousness of the musical director communicated itself to the orchestra. The tempi were very slow and much slower that the cast expected. The orchestral cues were slow in coming so that after dialog, the cast were left hanging while waiting for the music. _Finally_ the Alexis simply ran away with his second act number, forcing the conductor to follow him. From then on everything was more relaxed and normal but a bit late for what I have no doubt was a much better show than we saw. The Company simply had an 'off' night, something which can happen to any performing group this was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The group put on one of the most lively and entertaining cabarets of the two weeks, showing what they actually were capable of. I hope that they will not be deterred from coming back to the Festival; It would be a pleasure to see them put on a performance of the caliber of their cabaret.
Another Savoynet Coffee Morning. Smaller attendance than in Philadelphia; the weekday schedule did conflict with those who had to work. Still great to meet old friends and make new ones. We adjourned to the next room to hear Pamela LeightonBilik (from Washington, DC) give an encore of her Philadelphia presentation on "Not From Scholastic Trammels Free" -- presenting G&S in schools. A very informative discussion of the trials and tribulations involved and how they can be overcome. (Get an enthusiastic, no nonsense, driving individual like Pam Bilik and let her have her head!)
I admit that "Patience" is not one of my favorite works in the canon, one does get so tired of "Twenty lovesick maidens" (the song, not the maidens), so I was apprehensive about the second "Patience" of the Festival. Surprise! The Sale G&S Society's production, while traditional (Alistair Donkin directed -- the awardee for Best Professional Director) was bright, lively and well paced. Full marks to the Conductor for never letting the performance flag. The opening chorus was pushed more than usual, the Patience was spectacular and the Dragoons thundered (and thumped). Eileen Jackson as Patience received the Award as Best Female Performer; most well deserved. The costumes were uninteresting (rented from a very well known costumier) but costumes do not make a production (!) -- this performance was the Second Runner Up of the Festival. The only blemish (such as it was) concerned Grosvenor. Not his performance which was excellent, but having him with a straggly beard and five o'clock shadow did not enhance his image as 'beautiful.' The Director having him change into a formal Morning Coat and Topper (more suited for the Ascot scene in "My Fair Lady") instead of checked suit and pot hat seemed rather pretentious. All in all, it is hard to imagine a better "Patience" than this -- another item for my video list.
Today several of us were taken for a visit to the Wedgwood potteries as well as on a private tour of the Derbyshire countryside. Most fascinating to see things from the personal view of our guide. Of course we missed the Joyce Wright Morning Coffee and Conversation and her Master Class. I missed them last year also. So there will still be something new to do at my next Festival!
The Gondoliers presented by the Rose Hill Musical Society was colorful and enjoyable. The opening scene was rather sedate and it took the company a while to warm up. When they did, they came alive. Jonathan Godfrey as Don Alhambra was spectacular -- the very picture of a lecherous, extrovert of a Grand Inquisitor in full control of the events. The Plaza Toros became caricatures of Commedia del'Arte figures for their Second Act entrance -- gorgeous costumes and white makeup with red circles on the cheeks; very different if a bit out of character.
This group apparently performs normally on a postage stamp size stage and the dance choreography reflected it -- they did not take advantage of their larger facilities for the occasion. Another note, which applies not just here but to other performers as well: when wearing dresses which are lowcut in back as well as the front, the back needs makeup also -- suntan lines which don't match the costume look a bit silly.
Another spectacular Cabaret, the highlight of which was the performance by Peter Featherstone of an old Music Hall number "I want a cup of coffee in a proper coffee pot" which included a very clever takeoff of the Festival Adjudicator.
Another innovation this year was a "Performance School" for children during which they learned the chorus parts of "The Mikado." Today was the first performance with Ian Smith (as KoKo) and the other principal roles taken by adults from the West Yorkshire Savoyards. The children (35 girls and 5 boys) seemed a bit tight initially but relaxed once they got into the show. A very enjoyable afternoon.
Tonight featured a performance by The Forum Theatre, Billingham, of a version of "The Pirates of Penzance" which, it is safe to say, has never been seen on a stage before (except for their own performances earlier this year.) What was billed as a reconstruction of the original 1879 version incorporated material from both the New York and Paignton performances, some of which was cut or extensively rewritten by the time the show opened in London. To quote myself: "Even if this were a traditional production, it would have been innovative." The opening set was like an old Spanish treasure map running from the back cloth across the floor, with a bit of ocean on the left. The pirate ship, with Ruth as a living figurehead, rolled into shore during the Act I introduction. A very motley crew of pirates disembarked with a subdued Pirate Chief (not King as he was to become) acting as factotum to the rest of the band. After a very effective scene between Frederic and Ruth, the ladies chorus entered led by several maiden aunt chaperones who were pulling a luggage cart "over rocky mountain." The women were dressed in Edwardian daytime outfits, very effective even if not authentic. After their chorus, the luggage cart was turned around to reveal a tea cart. The ladies spread blankets, opened hampers and set up for a picnic. And they stayed seated (except for one lady who was more active and turned out, not surprisingly, to be Mabel) throughout the rest of the scene -- until the entrance of the pirates. The absence of busyness created a remarkable effect and focused all the attention on Mabel and Frederic.
The Major General entered in partial bathing dress and sang the first two verses of his number with his head stuck through the wall of a bathing cabin while being dressed behind it. He emerged in full regalia to complete his song. He didn't miss a syllable but one really didn't listen to the song, the scene itself was too distracting. The Act I Finale included Mabel going over to Frederic and asking him (in pantomime) to explain Ruth! An obvious action yet the first time I had ever seen it done. The second act opened with the Major General in his usual dressing gown but his daughters in evening dress. No reason that because he goes "to bed at half past ten" that his daughters shouldn't still be enjoying the evening. The performance concluded with the resurrection of the "Hymn to the Nobility," the reprise of a modified Major General's song before the usual "Poor Wandering Ones." A most satisfying evening. The only discordant note arose later when it was learned that due to circumstances beyond the Festival's control, videotapes of the performance could not be sold. Supposedly, the professional tenor, substituting for the indisposed amateur one, had refused to waive rights, although other explanations were offered.
The performance received the First Runner Up award, the Best Amateur Director for Peter Mulloy as well as Best Supporting Female for Sally Emerson as Ruth.
Weekends have proved to be very full of activity. A memorabilia fair (from new souvenirs to rare books, programs and other ephemera), a talk on "The Rose of Persia" (which was originally scheduled for the Festival) by Stephen Turnbull and a one woman (essentially) tribute to Jessie Bond performed admirably by Janet Cowley made for a very long, but enjoyable day. And if one has not read Jessie Bond's autobiography, as many in the audience had not, there were some real eye openers which do not usually get mentioned publically.
Another night, another D'Oyly Carte "Ruddigore." This one was different in that Julia Goss (Rose Maybud) was indisposed so that the role was taken on something like eight hour notice by Deborah Clague (Mrs. Geoffrey Shovelton) who was virtually word perfect and turned in a splendid performance. Possibly because of the presence of an understudy, the rest of the principals tightened up their rather broad interpretations and the entire show went off without a hitch. The best of the "Ruddigores" so far although the chorus seemed tired.
Another very full day: the memorabilia fair continued, a church service (same program as in Philadelphia), a talk by the Rev. Ian Bradley (which was mostly a promotion for his new book), a repeat performance of the children's "Mikado" as well as a Gillian Knight Master Class. Since many of these activities conflicted, even the most schizophrenic person couldn't do everything. But better that way than not having enough to do.
Tonight was the repeat performance of the South Anglia "Yeomen of the Guard." Those of us who had seen it in Philadelphia wondered if they could possibly repeat that incredible performance. Many who had heard about their Philadelphia performance were in states of great anticipation. Many were disappointed. It was a 'nice' performance but not special. Of course the innovations in the staging continued to draw warm compliments, but... Suffice it to say that the energy and tension of the first performance simply were not there. Wilfred Shadbolt and Elsie Maynard maintained their levels, Phoebe actually cranked up her performance several emotional levels in response to the adjudicator's comments, but everyone else seemed to have a bit of a letdown. At the end, when in his death throes Jack Point snapped his Folly Stick, he had to try several times to break it. Since the action looked contrived, rather than being the spontaneous and fluid action of the first performance, it destroyed much of the tension in the final scene.
Several people who saw the performance in Buxton, or have since seen the videotape of the Buxton performance, have expressed their surprise at the First Place award to this group. Well, this performance was not the winning one. It is instructive to reflect that for a Festival such as this, most of the companies are capable of turning in a winning performance -- if everything comes together properly on the night in question.
The Durham Light Opera Group reprised its Centennial production of "The Grand Duke," which was a late substitution for the cancelled "The Rose of Persia." This was the only amateur group not to be adjudicated, by their request (an option always available to any company.) A very colorful production -- costumes straight out of "White Horse Inn" and a backcloth so realistic that one expected the castle portcullis to rise for the entrance of the Grand Duke (it didn't.) Several people who had seen their original production felt that it had been weaker than it might have been because of a very inadequate orchestra and were hoping that the professional Festival Orchestra would allow the company to show in the best light.
The chorus singing was excellent as were many of the principals, in particular Ludwig, the Baroness and the Grand Duke. Some others had trouble projecting over the orchestra, for which one must criticize the conductor for getting carried away by the opportunity to direct good musicians and forgetting what his singers were capable of. There was some nice attention to detail -- the Baroness holding up a German newspaper printed in Gothic type, but some incredible sloppiness -- one chorister wearing brown ribbed stockings when the others were wearing white smooth ones. The Greek chorus which opens the second act was the best staged and most vigorously sung of the show. Now if the Director had just put the same effort into the _whole_ show, it would have risen from the decent to great since the performers were so clearly capable.
Another tour, this time to Warwick. Last year the tour was combined with Stratford on Avon affording neither site the time it deserved. This time they were split and aside from the coach driver getting lost (taking an extra hour getting there since he hadn't been told in advance where he was going and hadn't been to Warwick in twenty years), the visit was very enjoyable. Because of the constraints of the previous year, I did not visit Warwick Castle then. With ample time the leisurely stroll through what Americans think of as the archtype of a medieval castle made for a most enjoyable day.
We did worry that our return would be late for the most "hyped" production of Buxton: the Seattle G&S Society's performance of "H.M.S. Pinafore." Not to worry -- we even had time to change before the performance. And what a performance: a spectacular two level set, the original Sullivan orchestrations with orchestra supplemented by eight of their own musicians (a real pleasure to hear and it made such a difference), a real 'working' crew opening chorus with some members with dirty clothes as they performed their chores and others without shirts (I know that Seattle is the rainiest city in the Continental U.S., but some body makeup to simulate sun tans would not have been amiss). This Buttercup really had "gypsy blood in her veins." By far the tallest person on stage; one could easily imagine her as the winner of innumerable fights in the cigarette factory. A generally convincing performance was marred by a Brooklyn Cockney accent which did not help the image. Incredible singing: Best Male Singer -- Tom Derbyshire as Captain Corcoran; Best Female Singer -- Carol Sue Hunting as Josephine; Best Choral Presentation -- Act I Finale; two additional nominations. Certainly the biggest surprise of the Awards Banquet was that this performance did not place. If nothing else, this is a company that is used to performing on a much larger stage and did not effectively adapt to the reduced space. A large hatch cover in the middle of the stage did not help. As a result, actions were cramped and the chorus tended to get in each others' way. Semi-trivial taken as part of the whole but with so many comparable productions this year, very small details made such a difference in the final tally.
This group presented by far the best of the Cabarets this year. It was done as a 1940s Big Band-style U.S.O. show (for those who remember such things.) Numbers ranged from "The White Cliffs of Dover," a takeoff of "The Mexican Hat Dance," "Eagle High" and a Buxton special based on the old number made famous by Bob Hope "Thanks for the Memory" (the last repeated by invitation at the Awards banquet.) A most satisfying evening!
Morning Coffee and Conversation with David Turner, the Adjudicator. Ian Smith acted as host and seemed to spend most of the time twitting David about the time he (David) adjudicated Ian... It was good fun but the audience never got a word in edgewise. Another personal tour -- lunch in a pub in Cheadle, which used to be a Railway Station, followed by a visit to Gawsworth Hall, a fully occupied Tudor Manor House in incredible condition. A very pleasant afternoon.
Another D'Oyly Carte Sorcerer -- Deborah Clague again substituted and did a superb job as Aline. Overall, a strong performance.
Today was PeggyAnn Jones Day in Buxton. Morning Coffee and Conversation with a Master Class in the afternoon. Both very entertaining and informative. She held up very well considering the trauma which had overtaken her in Philadelphia and the fact that she had been on stage again (as Mrs. Partlet) the night before.
The Brussells Light Opera Company, the first Continental group in the Festival, presented a "Pirates of Penzance" this evening. The scenery and staging seemed to be derived mostly from the Joseph Papp version but most of the action was traditional. The presence of a paved promenade and lights in the opening scene belied the sentiment that "...we are the first human beings who ever set foot on this enchanting spot." The first scene was performed at the front of the stage before some unaccountable scenery. But it was a gauze which was then backlit to show several of the daughters playing shuttlecock as Frederic and Ruth were having their scene. Unfortunately it stayed lit, rather than fading out again, distracting attention from the critical scene in front.
For the first time ever, I thought that Frederic would be better off with Ruth than Mabel. The latter was an excellent singer, but her costume -- a 1920s green and yellow bathing suit when all the other ladies were too timid to take off more than a shoe and stocking, made her seem a rather 'hard piece of goods.' The Major General entered in bathing costume and also changed behind a curtain on stage, emerging in a Safari outfit, but fully epauletted! I did ask David Turner later if this were a new innovation in having the Major General change on stage (the second this year) but he replied that he had never seen it before either. Fortunately, the orchestra simply vamped until he was ready, rather than him -- singing while being changed. Amusingly, the MajorGeneral's Act II nightshirt also had epaulettes. Another Mabel (this time with the Major General as well) asking Frederic about Ruth.
In the Act II opening scene the ladies were again in evening dress. The policemen entered on vintage bicycles and were served cups of tea during "When a Foemen Bares His Steel," spraying at the appropriate references to "their chance of coming back." Ruth emerged from a sarcophagus before the Paradox trio. Overall a decent, if slightly understaged production. They did seem to get in each others' way a lot, even when small numbers were on stage.
Not to pick on this group particularly but this seems as good a time to bring up this point as any other. I could not help noticing that a number of companies (particularly the ladies) seemed much older on stage than they did later in the Festival Club. This was not the effect of one pint too many either as several other people commented on the fact that unflattering costumes and makeup created that impression. For the audience there is the impression that "old equals tired" in performance, so that effective use of makeup does enhance the impression of youth and vigor. And, as the Grand Duke says: "...it's really very cheap."
Today brought the first "Fringe" event to the Festival: a group called "Sin with Sullivan." The thesis was that the Devil challenges Gilbert to update his "tired old lyrics." So he does. While the show was advertised for adults only, there wasn't anything more salacious than is found on television these days. I found only one number in poor taste -- gross rather than sexual references. It was a different way to pass the afternoon.
I regret to say that Cynthia Morey was a D'Oyly Carte name unknown to me -- few recordings (and only in minor roles) and no American touring. Her Coffee and Conversation and subsequent Master Class were very pleasant and I was left with the feeling of regret that I had never seen her on stage. She was most effective as well in working with performers in the Master Class.
Another greatly anticipated evening. Two years ago St. Mary's School stunned everyone with its non-traditional and incredibly well done "Gondoliers." This year's "Princess Ida" was also nontraditional, done as a school putting on a production so that the 'modern costumes' made sense within the context. Girls in colorful frocks, boys in school blazers and ties -- except of course for the Gama crew -- he as a WWI German Field Marshall, his sons as a motorcycle gang (they entered doing 'wheelies' on bicycles about the stage.)
For those directors who had trouble keeping eight performers from falling over each other, this production should serve as a model: at times there were 70 (seventy!) people on stage executing exact movements with precise gestures and exquisite timing -- AND THE STAGE NEVER LOOKED CROWDED!!! Granted teenagers do take up a bit less volume than adults but still... Great ensemble singing. Unfortunately, unlike their performance of two years ago, they simply did not have the solo voices this time, some great potential for the future but immature. Several had trouble projecting above the piano (no orchestra) and many of the tempi for the solos were quite slow.
But what a cabaret they put on in the Festival Club! It seemed as if everyone in the cast had his or her turn. And talk about a cheering section. The group brought some 500 sisters, cousins and aunts (etc.) to the performance so the Festival Club was moved to the Octagon.
Another very full day. A "G&S Festival Challenge" which was a combination scavenger hunt as well as a ramble through Buxton on a preset course to identify G&S references outlined obscurely on the Challenge sheet. Good weather and pleasant company made for a very fast three hours, even though we only came in third.
A very well attended talk by John Cannon and Peter Parker on "Richard D'Oyly Carte and His Theatrical Dynasty" took us through mostly familiar material but threw in enough tantalizing tidbits to make one realize that there is still a lot more biographical material than in generally known.
A Reception for the 'Friends of the G&S Festival' served as a nice prelude to the evening performance of the Festival Production of Iolanthe. Alistair Donkin directed a lively and generally traditional performance but as is his wont, there were a few innovations. Some worked: having the fairies as a chorus line doing a few Charleston steps at the end of the opening chorus. Some didn't: having Fleta as an 'apprentice' klutzy fairy who was constantly upsetting the routines -- cheap laughs. Another mistreatment, in my opinion, was having Leila with a speech defect (in the dialog). Beside the obvious problems with comprehension (if one didn't know the work), it killed her projection. In fact there seems to have been a veritable plague of characters with 'peculiar' speech problems this year. Sooner or later an actor with a real one will turn up and the misuse will become really offensive. An excellent group of soloists and a strong chorus provided a rousing finish to the performances for this year. (Great cabaret, too.)
The last day, already. "How time flies when one is thoroughly enjoying oneself." A morning talk by John Cannon on "The Gilbert and Sullivan Collectors' World" drew a decent crowd for an early Sunday morning start. As a collector myself, it was most interesting to see the highlights of his and others' collections of G&S memorabilia, the sum total of which is most extensive and has never been catalogued.
The last afternoon, the last "Ruddigore." Everyone seemed tired and just glad to get it over with.
In contrast to last year, the final banquet started early, finished in good time (about 10 p.m.) with two hours of dancing to complete the evening, but almost seemed too rushed. Many of the award categories had only two or three nominees, whether because those were the only ones whom the adjudicator thought merited the nomination or because he was 'under orders' to keep the ceremonies to a reasonable length, I did not inquire. In any case, there certainly were a number of surprises. While originally announced as a "Formal Dinner" as it has been previously, by the time the tickets were issued the 'formal' disappeared so that the attendees were dressed in everything from Dinner Jackets or G&S Costumes to ordinary evening wear. The more casual approach seemed to lessen the impact of the award presentations. It was also surprising how few of the awardees were actually present. With a split Festival, I would have thought of this event as a unifying force to bring everything together. Perhaps it is better to reduce the emphasis on the awards -- the greatness of the Festival, as it has evolved, is the performances themselves.
The amateur performances were all quite strong and made for an artistically successful festival. (With sponsorship this year the Buxton leg of the Festival was reported to have shown a small profit for the first time.) At the Awards Banquet, it was announced that after the Winning production of South Anglia's Yeomen of the Guard (Philadelphia performance), the seven productions placing from second through eighth place differed in the scoring by only eight points! Considering that for the entire Festival, there were only 12 different competitive productions (South Anglia did Yeomen twice, the Durham Grand Duke was not adjudicated and the Australian Trial Without Jury was such a different kind of production that it shouldn't have been), the strength of the different performances was remarkable. (That total does not include the two Festival Iolanthes from which only the performers were adjudicated, not the productions themselves.) Thus, only very minor details of production and execution separated the winners from the 'losers,' and with a very obvious exception, there really weren't any losers.
One of the features of the Festival this year was the ability to view different companies performing the same work -- Pirates, Gondoliers, Pinafore, Princess Ida, Patience, Iolanthe (the two very different Festival productions). To be able to compare, not just the performances, but the (considerable) differences in interpretation was, for me, one of the highlights. Most of the productions were 'traditional' but it is remarkable how virtually every director was able to bring something original to a production, yet remain totally faithful to the 'tradition' of Gilbert and Sullivan and the D'Oyly Carte. Another opportunity, probably never to be repeated, was the opportunity to see the same company perform the same show twice - South Anglia's "Yeomen of the Guard" with the differences in execution on the two occasions.
For the 24 days of the Festival (9 in Philadelphia and 15 in Buxton) there were only 14 days of amateur productions, 2 Festival productions and 7 performances by the stars of the former D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. As the Festival expands to 34 (!) dates next year (9 in San Francisco, 9 in Philadelphia and 16 in Buxton), it is obvious that there is still plenty of room for many more good amateur companies.
I have no idea which, if any, part of the Festival I will be able to attend next year. I only know that while it will be going on, when I am not there, I will be thinking about it and missing it.
Page created 9 Dec 1996