Yeomen of the Guard Reviews

The pirates, fairies and sailors may be more perennially popular, but “The Yeomen of the Guard” surely is Arthur Sullivan's most masterful score.

When you hear “I Have a Song to Sing, O!,” you feel like listening to an operetta rich in the plaintive, populist tradition of English folk. During the Act One finale, you're sure you're hearing from an English composer whose best work matches the melodic complexity of anything by Benjamin Britten or Edward Elgar. And then Sullivan will surprise you with, say, a piece like “Night Has Spread Her Pall Once More,” a stirring, prescient, rock-like anthem that brings to mind “Les Miserables,” “The Who's Tommy” or even, for me, Green Day's “American Idiot.”

The new Light Opera Works production of this most serious and dramatic work in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire is, for the most part, beautifully sung. Some of the trios and quartets — such as “Strange Adventure” or the gorgeous “When a Wooer Goes a-Wooing” — are simply exquisite, thanks to the sterling vocal quality of Colm Fitzmaurice (who plays Colonel Fairfax) and newcomer Sahara Glasener-Boles, who sings Phoebe's part quite delightfully. And in the role of jester Jack Point, George Andrew Wolff brings his soaring tenor.

That's the good news. And it is very good news, given the quality of the score and the 29-piece orchestra. The show suffers, though, from a chronic inability to trust W.S. Gilbert's dramatic material.

Time and again, this “Yeomen” falls prey to the temptation to camp things up, as if all were afraid that the material could not stand on its own merits. It's a confounding and profoundly irritating habit. If someone, even a jester, is singing about the tears in their eyes, it isn't necessary to point at that eye. And not every number needs a flashy conclusionary button akin to something in the Ziegfeld Follies.

To be fair, director Rudy Hogenmiller signals clearly his direction. The production has a false proscenium, footlights and a stylized conceit. And I'd certainly agree that the love-and-escape plot of the “Yeomen,” which has its share of bathos and twists based on disguise and a cascade of sudden developments, is hardly wholesale naturalism. It's got some tough-to-swallow moments, even by the standards of operettas.

But a similar, ahem, fluidity of convention doesn't stop Shakespeare's last plays from breaking our hearts. And that's the ideal magic-realism style of a modern “Yeomen.” The conventions and contrivances are as they are. But all must be played as if they were the most logical things in the world.

There are moments when the show gets it right — some of the female chorus members act their socks off. But I think we need to believe that Jack Point is really devastated when his love abandons him — Hogenmiller has Wolff doing an overwrought physical routine; I'd much rather see and hear his heart break simply. That's the way to honor the D'Oyly Carte tradition exemplified by the great John Reed and Peter Pratt. This is one of Gilbert's most serious librettos. And I think it still works as such.

For while it may be tough to believe that Elsie (played by Alicia Berneche) doesn't look at her love's face until she has sung several lines of lyric, you can still be made to believe it. That moment is poorly staged here, as is a similar semi-tragic, semi-comic scene when Jack Point doesn't catch on that Elsie is being wooed by another.

The problem is an insufficient emphasis on truth. If feels like nobody much cared if those moments were actually credible. Sure, we're talking topsy-turvy, Gilbert-and-Sullivan truth, but it's human truth nonetheless. The show deals with love, pain, hope and, ultimately, the harsh reality that one person's happiness often comes at the expense of another. And when Sullivan's music is stirring your soul, you can be made to believe anything.

Chris Jones (JUN 10 2010) "'Yeomen of the Guard' by Light Opera Works: Music this lovely should lend more trust to story". Chicago Tribune