by Michael J. Vaughn
One of the benefits of having a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe in town is the assurance that, sooner or later, you'll get to see something besides "H.M.S. Pinafore," "The Pirates of Penzance" or "The Mikado." The Stanford Savoyards are providing just that opportunity with a production of the British duo's "Yeomen of the Guard," and even upping the ante by restoring some of the songs cut from the original show.
"Yeomen" premiered in 1888, almost a decade after "Pinafore" and "Pirates" (1878 and '79, respectively), and the work carries a distinctly higher level of sophistication on the part of both its librettist and composer. Gilbert's story is centered on the usual comic devices of unpredictable love affairs, farcical politics and mistaken identities, but takes some surprising turns toward melancholy.
Sullivan's music runs the usual track of marching choruses, manic tongue-twisters and romantic ballads, but also delves into Verdian duets and trios, medieval folk songs and an inspired a cappella quartet. Sullivan was clearly feeling his oats; three years after "Yeomen," he would premiere his first and only grand opera, "Ivanhoe," with text by Julian Sturgis.
"Yeomen" begins with a deceptively simple plot that grows more complicated by the second. Sixteenth-century war hero Colonel Fairfax (Paul Zawilski) is a prisoner in the Tower of London, awaiting execution on false accusations of sorcery. In order to frustrate those who wish to profit from his death, he arranges an anonymous marriage with the first available woman, Elsie Maynard (Marti Berg), a strolling musician who has just wandered into town with her traveling companion and suitor, Jack Point (Todd Schurk), an unemployed jester.
Fairfax's scheme backfires, as all G&S schemes do, when his old battlefield pal Sergeant Meryll (Mike Durkin), helps him escape disguised as his son, Leonard (this transformation is accomplished, as usual, by the simple shaving of his beard). Though relieved to be still among the living, Fairfax finds himself needlessly tied down by marriage vows to a woman he has yet to see. He also has to deal with his "sister," Sergeant Meryll's daughter Phoebe (Kay Byler), who seems to have the hots for him.
The Savoyards singers, under the stage direction of Howard Stateman and the baton of James Frieman, had a rocky start Saturday night, but improved remarkably as the evening proceeded.
Byler, for instance, suffered a little vocal timidity at first, but gained power as she went, and her comic turns through Phoebe's hormonal surges were dead-on and charming. As Phoebe's unappealing suitor, Wilfred Shadbolt, Neil Midkiff came off stiff and flat in "When Jealous Torments Rack My Soul" (one of the pieces cut from the original show, theoretically for its similarities to the then-recent exploits of Jack the Ripper), but redeemed himself later by cruising through the requisite tongue-twister, as he and Jack Point relate a fictional account of their slaying of the outlaw Fairfax. This was especially noteworthy in view of the sound-sucking abilities of the Dinkelspiel Auditorium, which could be remedied by the use of stage mikes.
Another inconsistent voice was Durkin, who made up for the lack of a top range with his solid acting as the Sergeant.
There were others who were strong throughout, especially Zawilski, whose resonant baritone and comfortable stage presence are always a delight. Marti Berg came in on short notice to do an excellent job with Elsie, and Schurk provided the show with its surprising sad side with a touching rendition and reprise of the jester's folk song, "For the Love of a Lady."
The most remarkable musical highlight was the beautifully tuned a cappella quartet of Colonel Fairfax, Sergeant Meryll, Dame Carruthers (Janet Homayounfar) and Kate (Janice Epp) midway through the second act. It's rare enough to hear this kind of challenging device in an opera, much less an operetta, and served as Sullivan's tribute to his homeland's great choral traditions.
Charles Furnweger and Ned Hollis' innovative interior for the Meryll home received an ovation all its own after the first scene, when it folded easily into the side of the Tower's courtyard.
The 24-piece orchestra under James Frieman was solid throughout, save a couple of high squeakers from the string section. Lastly, Bonnie R. Senko and Ellen Brigham's costumes showed their best in Colonel Fairfax's dashing prison wear (are all death-row inmates this well-dressed?), Jack Point's exuberant jester outfits and the blazing red uniforms of the yeomen.
"Yeomen of the Guard"
Who: Stanford Savoyards
When: 8 p.m. Friday, May 5 and Saturday, May 6; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 7
Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University
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