Review: Fresh Takes on Gilbert & Sullivan, Episode 3, by Gilbert & Sullivan Austin
by David Treadwell
The Fresh Takes on Gilbert & Sullivan project now streaming online offers food for thought. Opera can be a journey on which we members of a community travel together with the characters for a shared experience. Often, what keeps us as opera lovers on the journey are cultural references found in the words and music that act as road signs. Some of the most joyous moments come when we recognize the signs of shared experience, glance over at our fellow travelers and let the music wash over us. Some of the most poignant moments in opera come when the characters misread cultural road signs and we watch for the inevitable, tragic outcome.
And so it is with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. They’re often viewed as lighthearted and comic, but they have a seriousness about them, and the humor is used to soften Gilbert’s japes at both the bulwarks and frailties of English society. Gilbert was very much a man of his time and place, and he put as much of his time and place into his libretti (so much so that we have a lexicon specifically to help us unpack the references). And Sullivan? He engages us fully in Gilbert’s topsy-turvy stories with beautifully crafted music. Lots of us love that about the Savoy operas and wouldn’t have it any other way. But here’s the thing: there are other ways. The G&S repertoire is vast and sturdy enough to stand, even if some of our signposts are translated to help others gain access and find meaning. It is vast and sturdy enough to stand precisely because these bulwarks and frailties aren’t just nineteenth-century English, they are universally human.
We mustn’t fear that if we don’t have all our signposts, we might not find our way into and through the vast countryside of otherwise enjoyable music. Rather, let us celebrate adding new ways for others to join us. In his introduction to Episode 3 of Fresh Takes on Gilbert & Sullivan, Michael Meigs relates advice he received from his time as a U.S. diplomat: When experiencing a new culture, (if I may so paraphrase to continue my metaphor) we don’t see familiar signposts to help us navigate, and this lack of familiarity can cause “acute discomfort.” That’s OK. We are on this journey with our fellow humans, and if we can look over and smile a knowing smile at someone new in the audience, and tap our toes together to a beautiful melody, then we’re all better for the experience.
The third episode of Fresh Takes from Gilbert & Sullivan Austin continues this reconfiguring of cultural signposts. Contexts have changed, accents are different, the scenery sure is different, and the times, they are a changin’. But even for the most traditional lover of G&S there are enough signposts to help us find our way. In the first Fresh Take, the American Berserk Theatre and the musicians of Density512 tell the story of the apprenticed Fred in “The Computer Pirates of Penzance Ave.”
Signpost changes abound: the familiar coastline lair of the pirates is replaced by a den of computer hacktivists, complete with punk rock album art and a conspiracy theory-style bulletin board. These modern pirates are easy for a twenty-first-century American to follow. The iconography is in common usage, and even the class struggle in which the pirates engage is familiar. That acute discomfort at seeing a resetting of the venerable Pirates of Penzance is easily overcome with the reorienting influence of American life, but as a group they do lead us somewhere new. The pirate crew has an abiding love for each other, strong ethics, and a general distain for the distasteful work-a-day world. Very Gilbertian. Very human.
Acute discomfort is an accurate description of the second Fresh Take. Marcelo Tesón sings a “A British Tar is a Soaring Soul”, taken directly from HMS Pinafore and accompanied by Jeanne Sasaki. Marcelo does a yeoman’s job of it: a familiar signpost, indeed! His singing invites us to look at the background imagery: icons of king and country initially, as Gilbert would have seen in London, but subsequent images grow darker. They make us remember the that terrible price of empire is paid by its subjects. As the song continues, we see ourselves, Americans, as heirs of the British Empire, exacting the same terrible price from people around the world, and from ourselves. Just as Alexander Gardner’s photographs brought home the horrors of the Civil War and the atrocities visited on Native Americans, this Fresh Take holds up a lens and plate to create signposts to a history we’d rather not see.
In the third Fresh Take, music from The Gondoliers begets “The New Gondoliers: A Love Story in Three Parts.” The Duchess of Plaza-Toro and Casilda, played by Ellie Jarrett Shattles and Abigail Jackson, lead the cast in a very different direction from the original work. Gone are the opulent staging and costumes of Gilbert’s idea of Venice; instead, we have an intimate story of two couples sharing their backyard pool on a hot Austin summer afternoon. There are signposts here, too: relaxation in the heat, a beach ball and float, the sounds of our friend’s accents that differ from our own, and yet they’re still our friends. As sometimes it may happen, friends may find that they are more than friends: The Duchess and Casilda have their own fandango, perhaps not as lively as the Duke might have ordered in Barataria, but consequential for the women. Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s setting get repurposed by director Margaret Jumonville and the performers as an admission of the men’s dissatisfaction with their lives and an admission of the women’s unrequited love for each other.
In the fourth Take, we are treated to another “Little List” from The Mikado. Michael Meigs updates this G&S favorite, and it’s brought to life by Suzanne Orzech, playing a cultural consultant who’s out to teach us all how to be culturally aware. Leann Fryer is beside herself (literally!), playing a delightful chorus, and Jeanne Sasaki again provides her incomparable piano accompaniment. Need cultural signposts? Michael’s lyrics have them aplenty, including the requisite insulte amicale aimed at the French. Good neighbors can trade their quips and quibbles, japes and gibes, so long as we respect the dignity of every human being and share with them a knowing smile. This Take’s key phrase is the advice that that “Life is just a cookie jar of unexpected circumstances.”
So, dear reader, enjoy the third episode of Fresh Takes, available free of charge online until October 18. Understand that some of your favorite cultural signposts have been moved a bit or translated to allow your neighbor to find the way through the delicious works of Gilbert and Sullivan. If you’ve made it this far with us, fantastic! There’s a fourth and final episode scheduled for October, and there’s more traveling ahead in next summer’s McAdo, where some signposts are written in Scots, and we’ll “run about the braes / And pu’t the gowans fine.”
September 18 - October 18, 2021
Everywhere, TX, 78700
Streaming free of charge from www.gilbertsullivan.org from 7:30 p.m., Saturday, September 18, 2021 to October 15.