Young Victorian Theatre Company marks 40th season with cheeky staging of 'Iolanthe'
The Young Victorian Theatre Company, devoted to the indelible oeuvre of Gilbert and Sullivan, has managed an impressive run in Baltimore, reaching its 40th anniversary season of summertime diversion this month.
To mark the occasion, there's a new production of the work that started the organization on its successful path -- "Iolanthe," the 1882 operetta that gets considerable mileage out of a plot that pits a bunch of supernatural Fairies against an all-too-mortal House of Lords.
Although the idea of switching the action to the 1920s doesn't entirely click, the overall effect is quite refreshing. Just the opening sight of all the Fairy ladies decked out in colorful flapper dresses, flitting about on a cute and simple set (by Daniel Ettinger), is enough to signal diverting times ahead.
The updating, alas, goes only half way. Stage director James Harp, who devised the concept, may have had some deep philosophical reason why the Lords, when they appear, are in velvet knee breeches and other accoutrements suggesting much older times (and a more conventional production of "Iolanthe"). But this odd juxtaposition merely gives the appearance that the costume supply company didn't have enough male outfits with Roaring Twenties styling.
At least the character of Strephon, half-fairy and half-mortal (from the waist down), gets to fit into the time-change, toting around a ukulele for good measure. The updating routine really doesn't need all the underlining that Harp throws in here and there, as when the cast shouts out assorted '20s-era sayings or, more unfortunately, when the orchestra breaks into a jazzy beat. And most of the inevitable contemporary allusions added to the text for comic effect (a determined Young Vic tradition) fell rather flat. But these are, ultimately,
"Iolanthe" boasts a particularly fine score -- some would argue it's the best of the G&S operettas -- and the music was well served Sunday afternoon at the Bryn Mawr School, where conductor Phillip Collister had things percolating effectively. The mostly tidy, often quite colorful response from the orchestra was a major plus throughout the performance.
So was the sweet, nimble singing and deft acting of Sara Kate Walston, as Phyllis, the ward in chancery who wins Strephon's heart. Jeffrey Williams cavorted amusingly as Strephon and, except for a tendency to stay just the slightest bit under pitch early on, the baritone sang sturdily and warmly. As the Lord Chancellor, Troy Clark did his usual spry turn for the company, but his voice seemed to have lost several watts of power since I last heard him. No shortage of volume or tone color from Jimi James, though, as the Earl of Mountararat.
Nicholas Houhoulis did vibrant work as Earl Tolloller. Brendan Cooke, a very tipsy Private Willis, sang with a solid tone and admirable articulation. Alexis Tantau, done up quite stylishly as Queen of the Fairies, revealed a hearty voice to match. Madelyn Wanner, in the title role, sang sensitively, but could have used a more tonal body. Among the other soloists, Fatima Petersen's Lelia stood out for vocal and theatrical color. The chorus generally held firm.
All in all, one of the best Young Vic ventures I've seen over the past decade, one that preserved something of the original let's-put-on-a-show community enthusiasm that launched the company, with a nice layer of professionalism on top.
Remaining performances are July 15, 17 and 18.
PHOTOS BY CATHERINE LA COSTA COURTESY OF YOUNG VICTORIAN THEATRE COMPANY