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Gonzo-liers: Gilbert and Sullivan Mock Inequality with a “republican Monarchy”

Ed Rampell: This whole business of transposing works from one era to another -- those infernal Greek tragedies performed sans togas and the like -- is very, very tricky.
Gilbert and Sullivan

DW McCann (l.), Jenna Augen, November Christine, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper. Photos: Elizabeth Kalmus

THE GONDOLIERS Theatre Review

It’s funny how ideas ooze up from the collective psyche and into the public discourse and the arts. Sometimes this takes the form of symbolism, other times more straightforward expressions, in new works. In other cases, artists may hearken back to earlier pieces that have a renewed relevancy, shining a light (albeit often metaphorically) on contemporary conditions and when placed in a modern context.

A few years ago, with its slogans about the “1%” versus the “99%”, Occupy Wall Street put the issue of wealth inequality high on the American agenda. Even Barack Obomber (you know, the drone warfare president whose Justice Department selectively prosecutes whistleblowers but never throws the book at Bush regime war criminals and Wall Street banksters, even as the Occupy movement was viciously suppressed by law enforcement) blathers on about income disparity. In any case, this reviewer doesn’t know if it was an unconscious or conscious decision, but Sierra Madre Playhouse is currently presenting a rather hilarious Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera that deals with the theme of inequality

Gilbert and Sullivan

DW McCann, Jenna Augen

The story line of The Gondoliers is a bit complex, with at least two interwoven tales, so allow your plot spoiler averse critic to condense it for you, Dear Reader. After the death of the king of Barataria (in the tradition of the Marx Brothers’ Fredonia and The Mouse That Roared’s Duchy of Grand Fenwick, Barataria is a fictional realm -- where, perhaps, baritones reign), one of two married Venetian brothers who are gondoliers is believed to be the heir of the throne. But it is not known which of these proletarian paddlers is the rightful heir -- Giuseppe Palmieri (Dan “DW” McCann) or Marco Palmieri (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, who has also played Italians in an Off-Broadway production of Julius Caesar). The people of Barataria await the arrival of Inez, the king’s foster-mother (Leslie Thompson), to verify who the correct crown prince is, so that the wrong Palmieri isn’t palmed off on the principality’s populace.

In the meantime, three down-at-their-heels status conscious Spaniards are en route to Barataria. The Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro (the scene-stealing James Jaeger and Joy Weiser) and their daughter, Casilda (Kara Masek), who was supposedly betrothed to the baby who would be king back during their infancy. Toss into this convoluted mess (uh, I mean mix) the Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra (Kenn Schmidt). Having fallen on hard times, now that the prince (whichever brother he turns out to be) is about to ascend to the throne, these schemers with delusions of grandeur hope that a rising tide will lift their gondola to the heights of fortune and power through matrimony to a monarch.

Gilbert and Sullivan

November Christine (l.), Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, DW McCann, Jenna Augen

Never mind that both gondoliers have recently married the Venetian flower girls Gianetta (the stellar November Christine) and Tessa (Jenna Augen). As if all these plot contrivances aren’t enough, Gilbert and Sullivan add a soupcon of satire. During the interregnum, as Baratarians wait to find out who their rightful ruler will be, the working class Giuseppi and Marco decide to jointly rule their domain as a “republican monarchy.”

Now, your humble reviewer hastens to add that many lefties today believe America has devolved into a capital “R” Republican Monarchy, the United States of Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelsons. But librettist W.S. Gilbert means this in a small “r” sense, that is, the blue collar gondoliers will usher in a state that is a republic, rather than an absolute monarchy, wherein everybody is promoted to the ranks of the nobility. For the Palmieris, where “monarchy runs according to republican principles”, there “absolute equality” will reign supreme. However -- in a foreshadowing of George Orwell’s famous Animal Farm maxim that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” -- the well intentioned Venetian brothers soon drolly discover that in their would-be Utopia: “When everyone is somebody then no one’s anybody,” as the killjoy Grand Inquisitor puts it.

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The Gondoliers is at its best when it is satirical. Gilbert and Sullivan mocked the haughty hoity-toity mighty -- monarchs, militarists, mikados -- in their operettas. In their 1879 The Pirates of Penzance Major-General Stanley’s song “Model of a Modern Major-General” is one of the best spoofs of title-conscious pomposity and militarism in musical history, ranking alongside Country Joe and the Fish’s antiwar classic “I’m-A-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag.” In 1893 Gilbert and Sullivan’s next to last comic opera was entitled Utopia, Limited, which took potshots at British imperialism. And so on with their wry social commentary.

Gilbert and Sullivan

Brooke Johnson, Jeff Bratz

This Sierra Madre Playhouse production of The Gondoliers is full of mirthful merriment and movement, skillfully choreographed by Angela Nicholas, and operatic music that requires the females to hit the high notes and the males to hit the low nuts. There are also great performances, although with a cast of almost 30, there is no space to mention them all. But standouts include: James Jaeger, who, as mentioned, quite delightfully steals every scene he’s in like a theatrical kleptomaniac. As the Duke he reminded this reviewer of the late Paul Lynde’s fay panache. Although the talented Jaeger makes his performance seem effortless, one can imagine him snarkily asserting a la Lynde: “You think it’s easy? Not so easy!” In his next Gilbert and Sullivan outing Jaeger should play “Dear Little Buttercup” in HMS Pinafore.As the Duke’s daughter Casilda, Kara Masek (having previously portrayed Mabel in Penzance, no stranger to Gilbert and Sullivan is she,) looks like a more zaftig Scarlett Johansson.

As the not-so-Grand Inquisitor, Kenn Schmidt has the studied, insouciant snark and wickedness of and actually looks like the animated, mean-spirited moneybags Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. Schmidt plays the man you love to hate with relish. As the brothers Palmieri, Dan McCann and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper are gonzo gondoliers, and their daffy footsteps are reminiscent of Groucho Marx’s dizzy dances as he crooned about “Lydia the TaTOOed Lady” or “I’m Against It.”

And now a word about the show’s real find, the very model of non-traditional modern casting: As Marco Palmieri’s wife Gianetta, Ms. November Christine is a songstress and natural comedienne who lights the stage up like a Christmas tree every time she steps in front of the proverbial footlights. In addition to deft dancing and nightingale-like warbling, her facial expressions illumine the meaning of the lyrics and music of all her numbers. Agents and casting directors, stage and screen -- Ms. Christine is surely ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille -- should be beating down this effervescent talent’s door.

The show, alas, is marred by director Alison Eliel Kalmus’ ill-advised, topsy-turvy decision to update Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera -- which opened at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1889 -- to 1953. Re-set against the backdrop of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, Kalmus’ version has the conceit (concocted by her, not G&S) that a British cast is rehearsing a production of The Gondoliers. Why Kalmus did this (except as a rationale for the SMP production’s lack of period costumes and sets?) is beyond my comprehension. I mean do you really think you can improve upon Gilbert and Sullivan??? This whole business of transposing works from one era to another -- those infernal Greek tragedies performed sans togas and the like -- is very, very tricky. Sometimes it works, as with West Side Story’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but usually they don’t. You need a really good reason to tamper with perfection. Worse, it was frequently difficult to clearly hear and understand the lyrics, sung with faux British accents. Perhaps I’m spoiled by LA Opera’s supertitles, but with Gilbert’s rhyming of “serious” with “imperious,” inquiring ears want to hear.

But these are mere quibbles that shouldn’t deter theatergoers -- and Occupy Wall Streeters -- from rowing out to Sierra Madre to enjoy an overall delightful The Gondoliers, full of verve and satirical wit at the expense of the 1%.

Ed Rampell

The Gondoliers is being performed through June 21 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024 For more info: (626) 355-4318; www.sierramadreplayhouse.org .

Ed Rampell