Iolanthe or The Peer and the Peri


H.M. S. Pinafore
Torrie Sanders, Director and Choreographer;
Michael Sundblad, Music Director
Mary T. Christian Auditorium, TNCC, July 16, 2016
Review by John Campbell

One of summer's pleasures is the continuing series of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas presented by the Thomas Nelson Community College Performing Arts Department. In this, their fourth year, they offer the ever popular H.M.S. Pinafore which opened in London 138 years ago (1878) and is still regularly produced around the world.

Escaping the heat and humidity of a Tidewater July night to the cool Mary T. Christian Auditorium, we encountered a charming production of H.M.S. Pinafore. W.S. Gilbert's libretto and Arthur Sullivan's bel canto musical parody offered an evening of excellently sung and acted English silliness.

The curtain opens with the crew swabbing the deck and singing We sail the ocean blue. Soon the overly-familiar supply vendor Mrs. Cripps, affectionately known as Little Buttercup (Laura Meisner), arrives on the main deck. Above her a large British flag is spread across the beautiful woodwork of the forecastle. She is sweet on the Captain and hints at having a guilty secret, and thereby hangs the tale. Social class was and still is a barrier in many societies and especially in the Victorian England of Gilbert and Sullivan's day. Ralph Rackstraw (Tim Ayers Kerr, a recent New England Conservatory graduate), a common sailor, loves the Captain's daughter Josephine (Sarah Jones). With regret she sings Sorry her lot who loves too well. Captain Corcoran (Jeff Joyner, a seasoned G & S performer) plans to wed her to the Right Honorable Joseph Porter K.C.B., First Lord of the Admiralty (Ron Milovac in another leading G &S role for TNCC). Dick Deadeye (Brian Wrestler in his fifth production with TNCC) is a sailor who call 'em as he sees 'em, creating all sorts of mischief for his class-restrained fellows.

Pompous Sir Joseph arrives after his nine sisters and cousin Hebe (Celia Brockway Macchia, who's performed with Norfolk's Cantabile Project and Petersburg's Old Towne Opera) are helped aboard singing Over the bright, blue sea, attracting all the men to the gunwales. Never having served on-board a ship, he's risen through the ranks of the Civil Service and regales the men with tales of his advancement and praises British sailors as equal to anyone. Ralph is so taken by the idea that he confesses his love for Josephine but she responds, singing Refrain, audacious tar. Ralph decides to plunge himself into a watery grave but she stops him and confesses her love. Their planned elopement is put on hold when Dick Deadeye alerts the Captain. This forces Little Buttercup's hand to to reveal her secret.

The musical parody is on Verdi's Trovatore, a tale of babies switched at birth, and is connected to Buttercup's little secret—as a "baby farmer" she had switched the Captain and Ralph as infants. As a result their shipboard roles are switched allowing the two young people to marry and Corcoran to marry Little Buttercup. After more splendid singing almost everyone lives happily ever after! Even Sir Joseph links-up with his snobbish but smitten cousin Hebe.

The orchestra of twenty-three players, led by Michael Sundblad, offered the fine music, well-played with sparkle. Director/Choreographer Torrie Sanders is his co-conspirator in bringing all four annual summer light opera productions to the stage. With 24 characters to work with, the movement and dance was well organized with an easy flow on the small stage.

Several of the production staff continue from year-to-year producing consistently high-quality stagings. In keeping with Sundblad and Sanders' plan of alternating a popular G&S title with a less well-known one, the summer 2017 production will be Iolanthe.

Michael Sundblad Conducts Iolanthe or The Peer and the Peri
Mary T. Christian Auditorium, Templin Hall
Thomas Nelson Community College, July 22, 2017
Review by John Campbell

Performances of W.S. Gilbert (book) and Arthur Sullivan (music) operettas are rare in Tidewater, Virginia and that's especially true for Iolanthe. Musical Director Michael Sundblad and Production Designer/Director Torrie Sanders changed all of that with a magical production offered in six weekend performances mid-July at TNCC's Templin Hall.

As with all of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, Iolanthe has a well-constructed and long overture. The opening tableau had some twenty fairies asleep in all their gossamer and pastel splendor on the turquoise and gold stairs at the back of the stage. As they awoke, little dog Pippin with his fairy-human Rachel Gray came by for cuddles and head-scratches. The backdrop was of horizontal strips of fabric in burnt orange, violet and brown. The ingenuity of Lighting Designer Kate Robinson kept the visuals lively as the story unfolded.

We first met the Peers (members of the House of Lords) as they marched in procession in their black or blue floor-length capes lined in red, purple or blue, to a bright and jaunty melody of blaring trumpets and drums, bouncing up and down and singing: “Bow, bow ye lower-middle classes . . . bow ye masses... .”

With an orchestra of some twenty instrumentalists and a cast of forty talented actors drawn from TNCC students and alums and the community, this performance continued the tradition begun in 1882 of a sparkling production. TNCC offered us a fantasy satire of romance and humor, with current social and political references and memorable musical numbers. The original production was a first for London's Savoy Theater since it made use of the then new electric lighting, creating magical effects.

The interaction of the Peers (members of Parliament's House of Lords) and Peris (fairies) is explored. By law, the two groups must never marry. Our story begins twenty years after fairy Iolanthe took a mortal husband and was banished, never to see him again. The story opens with the Queen of the Fairies (Arna Majcher) being petitioned by the other fairies who still miss Iolanthe—fairies are immortal, so 20 years is but a day! The fairies rejoice as the banishment ends. The waif-like Deborah Soderholm's (Iolanthe) gentle demeanor won our sympathy for her plight and that of her son, Strephon (Timothy Wright) who is half fairy (down to the waist) - half human (below the waist to the feet). It turns out that the father was The Lord Chancellor (ODU vocal major Logan Kenison). His youthful enthusiasm and laser-focused diction let us hear the text clearly. Strephon is in love with a mortal, Phyllis (Laura Meisner), an Arcadian shepherdess and ward of The Lord Chancellor who would also like her for a wife.

Planning to marry this day, Phyllis sees Strephon in intimate conversation with his mother (who appears younger than he) and misunderstands the situation. She calls off the wedding, not knowing he is half fairy.

The story is built around their getting permission from The Lord Chancellor to marry. The Peers promote the idea that Strephon is unfaithful because they, too, have romantic intentions toward Phyllis. The fairies, who have magical powers, make him a powerful member of Parliament, able to pass any bill he wants. Meantime Peris and Peers fall in love with each other. What a mess! If that were not enough, Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards (Alvan Bolling II, with a powerful voice) is taken-up by the Fairy Queen to marry.

Two seasoned G & S performers, Jeff Joyner as Lord Mountararat and Ron Milovac as Lord Tolloller, vie for Phyllis' hand, only to find they love each other. Once Iolanthe makes The Lord Chancellor aware that she is his long-lost and much-beloved wife, a small change in the law requires cross-class marriage. Silly? Yes! Funny? Yes, and performed with sparkle and joy. Very much an antidote to the political muddle and class division of our present day.

The able stage manager was Jen Abbott and technical director David Garrett. The Valet to the Lord Chancellor, a non-speaking role was a nice touch and well-played by Eric R. Dibble, a TNCC alum.

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