The show ran more or less smoothly, but only intermittently pulsed with jocularity, fever, bombast.
"More lively! More lively!" cry W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan at one point in the first act of Tarantara! Tarantara!, as they urge a new cast member to put more energy into a song. The new singer has the idea, but he's unpolished and his performance falls flat. It was a good metaphor for opening night of the Madison Theatre Guild and Madison Savoyards' production of the show.
In her program notes, director Joan Brooks alludes to canceled rehearsals due to this winter's rough weather, and at Friday night's Bartell Theatre show, it seemed like the cast were getting close to nailing it but needed another week's time. Tarantara! ran more or less smoothly, but only intermittently pulsed with the jocularity, the frenetic fever, the bombast one associates with Gilbert and Sullivan and ought to expect from a biography of the duo and revue of their music.
It would be fair to say that Stuart Brooks, as librettist Gilbert, ruled the stage -- except that he did it so well that he never dominated or overshadowed his fellow troupers. Curmudgeonly, wryly coarse and cocky in all the best ways, the character was a pleasure to watch (and not just because he got all the best lines), especially as the show neared its close and Gilbert's dedication to the partnership's endeavors became obvious.
That revelation of the gruff writer's sensitive side, contrasted with Sullivan's prima donna tantrums, provided a tension that helped pick up the second act. As Sullivan, James Chiolino could have been more emphatic (his voice tended to trail off at the end of lines), but wore the character's ongoing embarrassment over his career as a composer of comic operas well enough that you felt sympathy for him, rather than irritation over his playboy irresponsibility and sense of entitlement.
As for the tunes, at times they felt superfluous, particularly during the first act -- like you couldn't have a show about Gilbert and Sullivan without them, of course, but it would have been nice if more of them had aligned more thematically, and not just chronologically, with the plot. A number of solos were weak, and none were outstanding; the bits sung as a group offered glimpses of real sparkle that never quite burst out. David Sytkowski's piano playing, however, was strong enough to take the place of a whole orchestra. And the set and costumes, taken from the Savoyards' plentiful stores, served ably.
On the whole, the show itself could be leaner, and last night's production could have been tighter and richer. There were glimmers of life there, but for the most part, they never quite made their way out onto the stage.