The niche has become so specialized that one suspects a note of explanation is needed. William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were enormously popular in their day, producing exceedingly daffy shows with infectious melodies that stood stratified, class-conscious Imperial Britain on its head.
Their popularity spread to America. But from the 1950s onward, Broadway standards (and, later, those Andrew Lloyd Webber shows) gradually displaced the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, though they remain popular with a devoted, if aging, group of fans.
The interesting thing is that as America has segmented into the super-rich elite vs. the sinking middle class, and dysfunctional scions of political clans (did I say “Bush”?) begin to resemble the old inbred British peerage, Gilbert and Sullivan’s humor speaks more and more to our times.
Iolanthe (1882) is a case in point. We get a stage full of nearly brain-dead British lords singing “Bow down, ye lower middle classes!” But soon, the lords are gaga over a pretty girl from a poor background. Likewise, the high-class Fairy Queen falls for a Grenadier Guard, in his red jacket and furry black hat. It’s pretty delicious stuff.
Unlike the occasional Music Circus productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, which use a smallish pit band, the community shows by the Davis Comic Opera Company feature a 20-piece chamber orchestra with no electronics. The Iolanthe orchestra sounds good under conductor Sean Bianco, who also hosts Capital Public Radio’s opera show.
Iolanthe also features elaborate costumes (Laura Coe) and a cast of nearly 30 (directed by Jill Wright). At the high end is Craig Morphis, who’s sung professionally. He’s marvelous as the Lord Chancellor, the symbol of useless aristocracy. Roy Spicer is also good as Strephon, the “ordinary” shepherd who is actually half fairy, from the waist up, and half human, from the waist down.
The ensemble singing and supporting solos are a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re clear, but other times you have to strain to pick out the words—and Gilbert’s lyrics are critical.
In summary, when it’s “on,” this show is good fun, of the sort seldom encountered nowadays. And when a scene doesn’t quite catch fire, it’s still an elaborate community musical, with the usual limitations.