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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp LA Review
by Stanley H. Nemeth
The plot, for those unfamiliar with this comic opera, is a typically delightful Gilbertian concoction, having to do with Venetian boatmen who may be royals, misplaced babies, childhood marriages, and a paradox-clarifying Nursemaid who sets all to rights in the final scene. It might just as well have been subtitled The Unimportance of Being a Gondolier.
Central to the topsy-turvy plot also is a political and social satire on upward mobility (and the best of all possible forms of government) that is anything but innocuous. Gilbert recognizes that vanity and the itch to domineer are found in persons of all social classes. Consequently when the two Gondoliers are elevated to serve jointly as King of Barataria, trying to please all social ranks, their good intentions produce something merely absurd, "a despotism strict combined/ With absolute equality." In it, the lower orders tyrannically call the shots, while the royals do menial labor for their keep. Similarly, snobbery is anatomized from several perspectives. Gilbert laughs both at persons resentful of rank and privilege who jump at the chance to be upwardly mobile themselves and at persons already of high station whose pleasure lies in pointing out the lower station of others. As the Grand Inquisitor, a character of rank, sings "When every one is somebodee/ Then no one's anybody." This is hardly gentle satire.
The production currently at The Chance Theater presents the lengthy work largely intact and for the most part successfully. Given its rarity, it definitely should not be missed. The strengths of the production include first of all several principals (all women) equally skilled at acting and singing. Chief among these are Erika Ceporius as Casilda, the childhood bride of the rightful King of Barataria, Barbara Gibbs as her mother, the Duchess of Plaza Toro, and also Candice Balen and Kristy Errera as Tessa and Gianetta, the wives of the two Gondoliers, Giuseppe and Marco. Second, the sets for each act (by Oanh Nguyen), though simple, are highly suitable and attractive, deserving praise as such and, finally, the costumes by Erika Ceporius are appropriately colorful and attractive.
The weaknesses are of two kinds. First, there are some uneven spots in the casting. Certain of the performers who sing quite well are not so strong delivering deft and mercilessly witty dialogue. Others who shine verbally tend on occasion to sing flat. No one is altogether ever less than competent, but the skills of the aforementioned women tend to emphasize these gaps in achievement. Second, there's the matter of the direction, which is, at best, a mixed bag. Kent Johnson does well to update some of Gilbert. Nothing ages more quickly than the externals of satire, and interpolating fresh references has been a staple of G & S performances since the earliest revivals. Particularly winning in this production are the first appearances of the two Gondoliers as the equivalent of contemporary rock stars over whom teen-aged girls swoon, the inflections of the speech of their new brides to suggest they're Venetian Valley Girls , and the hilarious appearance of the Second Act Courtiers in the guise of the Village People.
Johnson in places is simply too fond of schtick. And when he moves into the questionable mode of clumsily parodying what is in the original a more inspired parody, he becomes a director who needs a director. This dumbing down suggests a patronizing tipping of the hand to audiences presumably raised on TV comedy. A representative example of this sort of thing is the decision to have the snobbish, unintentionally funny Grand Inquisitor pull his underwear free of his butt. And in the true style of TV, this gesture, inspiring laughter which drowns out the dialogue, is repeated several times. The repetition, not surprisingly, is non-incremental. Its effect is equivalent to that of slathering with tomato catsup an already perfect boeuf bourguignon. It may be to the taste of the injudicious, but it must repel those who think G & S don't need such help.
The strengths of this production of G & S's Mount Everest among comic operas outweigh the limitations, and they lead one to wish that The Chance Theater will tackle current rarities such as Patience and Iolanthe in future seasons.
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