To begin its next half-century, Madison Savoyards opened its 51st annual production of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas with Iolanthe on Friday at UW Music Hall.
The typically zany G&S plot mixes woodland fairies with members of the British House of Lords for a tale of troubled lovers and conflicted matchings. The hero, Strephon, is half-fairy (mortal only from the waist down) and must explain to his beloved Phyllis how at age 24 he can have a mother -- the fairy Iolanthe -- who looks only 17. Phyllis, meanwhile, must stave off the romantic advances of her guardian, the Lord Chancellor, and two other lords, plus a chorus of peers.
Wonderfully dated looniness is perfectly balanced with the timeless satire of politicians and lawyers. And such wonderful music! Gilbert’s dazzling verbal wit comes to life truly only through Sullivan’s underrated but beautiful settings. It’s as good an operetta entertainment as you can find anywhere, anyhow, from anybody.
Vocally, the cast for this production is more serviceable than noteworthy. Clear projection of words, so vital, is often a problem for the women. The best voice, with the strength and diction of a real pro, is that of Anthony Ashley, who is wonderful as the stalwart Private Willis. As the Lord Chancellor, Pete Bisson delivers that supreme piece of “patter song,” the nightmare monologue, with admirable clarity. I thought I heard some slipped words in “When Britain really ruled the waves” in Act II, but I could be wrong.
In the best Savoyards tradition, this is a cast of mixed ages but mostly young singers really enjoying themselves -- and, for many of them, probably discovering the delights of G&S for the first time. The humor and tunefulness of the piece comes through richly, and the opening-night audience loved it.
Adding to the verbal and musical pleasures are the visual dimensions. The set is simple yet very handsome. The costumes, designed by Sharon White, are really lovely, and especially imaginative and individualized for the fairies. Stage director Suzan Kurry has devised a continuous liveliness of movement, with a lot of clever details adding to the fun, all in collaboration with Simone LaPierre’s sprightly choreography. Conductor Grant Harville has pulled together an orchestra that starts out the run in more polished shape than I can recall from past years, though I do think the pit volume could be lowered a bit so as not to overwhelm the singers at some key points.
This is, then, another highly enjoyable summer offering from Madison Savoyards. It also whets the appetite for next year’s mounting of Princess Ida. This volunteer-operated, fiscally stable organization is one of the oldest musical-theater groups in Madison, and it is very satisfying to see it still so eternally young and fresh.
Remaining performances are July 20, 25, 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m., plus July 21 and 28 at 3 p.m.