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July 13, 2010

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,

mere quibbles in light of the pretty consistent fun quotient. And, to be sure, there are many clever bits in Harp's staging, as well as Jeffrey Nolt's choreography.  

"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.



Posted by Tim Smith at 7:11 AM | | Comments (2)


I attended the opening night performance and generally enjoyed the show. However, the "inevitable contemporary allusions" have become far too numerous and not very interesting or "comic". In fact, this determined tradition needs to be greatly scaled back in my view.

I'm not a G&S purist in the strict sense, but over the years these "additions" have nearly taken over the shows and are mostly distracting. The Star Trek comment was a good example. The addition of the 3 young boys throughout the revered Nightmare Song was a horrible mistake, as was the unscripted emergence of a drunken Sgt. Willis (well sung) in the middle of a dialog piece, resulting in lost plot. One in my party was unfamiliar with the show and complained of missing a lot of the sung words and then, having the dialog interrupted, lost that part as well.

These far too numerous additions have taken on a sense of being added simply as a display of "wit", but they generally fail and almost never fit in - an exception being the addition to the Fairy Queen's admonition to the Peers at the end of Act I. That was somewhat appropriate and didn't interfere, where the rest mostly slowed things down or truly interrupted the flow.

I'm not all grinch - overall I enjoyed the show and many of the performances. Mr. James as Mountararat was in superb voice and Mr. Houhoulis carried on gamely despite a medical issue earlier in the day. The enlarged chorus did generally good work and the addition of the 2 trumpets on stage was fun for the glorious March of the Peers - though they did overwhelm the words a bit. Ms. Walston's acting was spot on as was her voice.

I look forward to future Young Vic performances and only hope they attempt to rein in the needless and disruptive "inevitable contemporary allusions", making them less inevitable.

Hear, hear. I didn't think I could be the only one who finds that a lot of this stuff goes a short way. I might also add that a real theater with a real orchestra pit could make a world of difference in terms of getting more of the sung words across. The company operates at a considerable artistic disadvantage in that hall. Anyway, thanks for sharing your analysis. TIM

I was fortunate enough to go to "Iolanthe" twice last week-end with friends and family from out of town. The performances were glorious. What beautiful music! At brunch before Sunday's show I am afraid I went on abit telling my guests about Young Vic. I just felt so proud. Baltimore has struggled much in the last decades and it saddens me. And then for two weeks Brian Goodman's dream brings "Iolanthe" to our hearts again. We can all work together and give our very best in life. I rather enjoy the contemporary references and think they are part of the great GS magic.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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