Review: The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria by Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Austin
by David Glen Robinson
The measure of any opera is the music, particularly the singing. In smaller urban markets such as Austin, the singing talent pool might seem somewhat restricted, as operatic voices are rare in the human species. Too often elsewhere in Austin’s musical theatre community, a production with a large cast may have only three to five singers good enough to tread the boards of a musical production. In contrast, all of the singers in The Gondoliers are talented, enthusiastic and up-to-task as they have been cast.
All of the principal voices are exquisite. Some could sing in any opera company anywhere. A reading of the bios in the program suggests that several of them have done just that. This production by the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Austin is superb and recommended enthusiastically to all audiences.
The story of The Gondoliers is typical and predictable for opera—full of secret identities and gaining and losing fortunes. Gilbert and Sullivan turned the corner on the tiresome opera formulas and used them as vehicles for their wacky humor, full of puns and droll stupidities and general topsy-turvyness that leave audiences howling with laughter even today, up to 140 years after their operas premiered. How did they do that? Who cares? Enjoy the show! The schtick of a near-sighted man (a minor character played to committed perfection by Paul Halstead) searching for his stolen glasses throughout the show is only one of a few giggly mini-stories with which director Michelle Haché crowds the artistic gem that is The Gondoliers. A propos, perhaps Tristan Tierney and Jayda Maret someday will be heart-throbbing romantic leads.
The songs and music feature the rolling, choppy cadence that is ultimately self-parody but which audiences have come to expect and enjoy as the essential Gilbert and Sullivan signature. The singers chop through it all with skill. The two couples at the approximate center of the story are superbly matched to their characters. Their voices and physicality are extraordinary. Holton Johnson as Marc is matched with Priscilla Salisbury as Gianetta; and Derek Smootz as Giuseppe is matched with Angela Irving as Tessa. Their numerous songs are gems within the gem. They are the peers of Boni Hester and Sarah Burke, well-known and much applauded singers on the Austin scene.
The rest of the cast competes well and harmoniously with their romantic leads. Identifying standouts in the ensemble is quite useless except to honor the courage of chorus member Sarah Steele, who face-plants full-length on the stage in a faux faint when a romantic gondolier acts like he is going to choose her.
Attending any show on opening night is an education in how a very complex production comes together. Fumbles and stumbles reveal how the complexities fit like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The entire libretto, both lyrics and dialogue, is projected above the stage, imposing an iron discipline on the perfomers. One of the principals missed and finessed several lines, pointed out glaringly to the audience by the supertitle. No doubt this heightened vulnerability will motivate him to nail it all down immediately. At one point a highly contrastive lighting change was started before a song ended. That flustered the audience briefly, but it reminded us all that the light board operator has to know the scenes and songs as well as the actors do. One wonders, too, if the disjunction may have been due to a timed lighting set that fell out of sync because the stage action slowed down, and not because anyone in the booth fell asleep. The actual cause is indeterminable for the audience, but it shows where and how the pieces fit together. Minor stuff happened, too, that was amusingly distracting: one or more of the principals sang too obviously off the video prompter in the orchestra pit in downstage ensemble songs. Learn to use your peripheral vision for that. But the bobbles in a show like The Gondoliers just make it more enjoyable, and they won’t be there by the time you read this.
The Gondoliers is a Gilbert and Sullivan opera written at the height of their powers and produced superbly by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin, directed by Michelle Haché and choreographed by Christine Jean-Jacques. Heightening the show’s interest for opera-goers is its presentation in the Worley-Barton Theater at the Brentwood Christian School, a relaxing drive up North Lamar Boulevard about ten blocks north of its intersection with Braker Lane. The four-year-old facility is amazingly well-adapted to opera performance, with good acoustics and more than four hundred seats, all with good sightlines to the wide and deep stage. The show is family friendly and well produced; it is a great opportunity to start exposing children to the performing arts. (Careful -- these arts are addictive.)
The Gondoliers plays from June 16th to the 26th, 2016 at the Worley Barton Theater at Brentwood Christian School, north Austin. It is appropriate for all ages, and all are strongly encouraged to attend.
Click to view full program of The Gondoliers by Gilbert & Sullian Society of Austin:
Note: LARGE files (8.5 MB)
June 16 - June 26, 2016
11908 N Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX, 78753
Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.; Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. on June 25, 2016
Worley Barton Performance Center, Brentwood Christian School
11908 N. Lamar | Map