Hearing a musical work or experiencing a play for the first time is exhilarating. When the “new” piece is a 122-year-old Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, there’s a rare combination of the unknown and the familiar–their last collaboration.
There isn’t a G&S opera that doesn’t have the familiar musical motifs of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s settings of W.S. Gilbert’s wit-laden and often absurd plots. It’s their unique and enduring brand of topsy-turvydom, regardless of the opera, but as Katisha in The Mikado says it’s “an acquired taste”.
Good news: If you love Gilbert and Sullivan, you are in for a treat at the Pittsburgh Savoyards’ 80th anniversary production of The Grand Duke. Fans should be in a seat for this second weekend of performances as the Savoyards take on Duke for the second time in the eight-decade history of one of the region’s longest running community theaters. The Savoyards have only performed Duke once before, back in 1977.
Under the baton of Guy Russo and the stage direction of Robert Hockenberry with Shannon Knapp as assistant director, the Savoyards’ company of orchestra and singers succeeds in bringing The Grand Duke to life. Significantly, the Savoyards run on the steam of volunteerism, comradery, and a love of the G&S canon.
Director Robert Hockenberry admits in his program note that the piece needed some thoughtful trimming to tighten it up for modern ears. Certainly the piece reflects the prowess of its writers and their long-running collaboration. Gilbert’s plot is no less silly than some others and Sullivan’s music shines–displaying the soaring melodies and harmonies for stellar voices supported by rich orchestration. Hockenberry explains that “perhaps the worst song Sullivan ever wrote was cut” and that that company set out to polish a work some consider a rough jewel.
WIth the love and respect due to a work of such pedigree, the Savoyards shine as they share the joy that’s kept this local troupe going for eight decades–despite wars, economic downturns, and less recognition of G&S works in the opera world.
For that joy alone, the Savoyards deserve more than three cheers. And for staging this rarely heard opera, the company earns praise for taking on yet another project that singularly distinguishes what the Savoyards represent as they so passionately carry on as the region’s oldest community theater.
The orchestra shines with this multifaceted score under Russo’s capable baton. The men’s chorus is very solid given the usually small numbers. Women’s voices in the chorus are strong and provide a number of supportive solo bits.
Some roles are shared by company members, so leads vary for some performances through this weekend’s final events. As we attended the Sunday matinee on March 4, some of the leading singers are on stage again Saturday, March 10 with their doubles appearing on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.
In the title role for the entire run, Michael Greenstein brings experience and his knack for some of Gilbert’s quirkiest characters to the title role as the Grand Duke of a tiny German village (with a name too long to include here) in 1750.
There, the local thespian troupe are dismayed about his tight purse strings and conspired to remove him. The overture features dance and theater warm-ups while the show is filled with many fun references to the roles of company members and management. Undoubtedly, Gilbert was writing about what he knew and it’s charming for the cast members and the audience.
The plot is almost too multifaceted to explain, but suffice it to say there’s no parson for the Duke’s impending wedding, he upends a young couple’s own ceremony plans, the little guys lose out, and the aristocracy is almost overthrown with the draw of a card–hence the “statutory duel” reference.
But there’s second “duke”, an actor who wins the Duchy’s top spot when he takes on the Duke. Andy Hickly is charming as the wannabe. Paul Yeater is fun as theatrical manager–perhaps based on someone in the original Savoy Theater company. Mark F. Harris gave a charming turn as the Herald late in the show. As the Notary, Ryan Garber adds just the right touch of the rule of law.
Anna Lahti beautiful sang as the sardonic Julia Jellicoe, a comedienne in the troupe who winds up as the new Duke’s bride. Lisa, his discarded fiancee, was sweetly sung by Sarah Marie Nadler. Sally Denmead plied her acting and singing chops to create an entertaining and sympathetic bride-to-be who loses out when the original Duke steps down. Her hopes are dashed by Julia, but all is further confused when the Princess of Monte Carlo, delightfully drawn by Brennan Bobish shows to marry to the Duke herself. Seems her kingdom promised her hand many years ago. Likewise, Hayden Keefer turns in a fun performance as the Prince of Monte Carlo. And the pair’s outlandish wigs, make-up and costumes are a shot in the arm late in the show.
The show likewise closes with an unexpected kick-line and more merriment. Hockenberry earns kudos for keeping the energy flowing through two long acts and the whole two and a half hours. His judicious editing benefits the production immensely.
Ed Griffiths is joined by Hockenberry for scenic design that provides the village, town square, and a view of the German mountains in the distance. Ellen Rosen leads as costume design, turning in colorful variations for the huge chorus and distinctive styles for each lead character. Garth Schafer is back as lighting designer, providing a consistent look and effects appropriate for this bright and comic show.
The ensemble of 14 singers and a half dozen supers provide chorus back-up and color.
There’s plenty of jokes for insiders, but the curious newcomer should consider this production. It’s never too late to “get” G&S and it might be just the comic diversion as we move into daylight savings time!
And you can party with the Savoyards at Cheers for 80 Years, a birthday fete at Penn Brewery on April 28.
Details on The Grand Duke and all things about The Pittsburgh Savoyard are online in the company site.