Given the current political climate, The Victorian Lyric Opera Company’s performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s political satire Iolanthe seems particularly apropos. The operetta, now playing at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, revolving around the clash between the fairy kingdom and the House of Lords allows for ample opportunities for playful fairy tale elements and for Gilbert and Sullivan’s trademark social satire. Iolanthe’s love story wrought with ironic mis-steps, funny self-deprecating comments about the witless members of the House of Lord, Gilbert’s witty and cunning lyrics, all set to Sullivan’s rousing score makes this one of my favorite of the G&S catalogue.
Iolanthe (Carla Rountree) is a fairy who has broken one of the fairy laws—marrying a human—which is punishable by death. But The Fairy Queen (Denise Young) doesn’t have the heart to kill her beloved Iolanthe so she exiles her from the fairy kingdom and bans her from ever seeing her human husband again. Iolanthe has spent the past 24 years in exile with her son. At the urging and begging of the other fairies—all in colorful tutus and beautiful sparkly wings designed by Costume Designer Denise Young—the Fairy Queen allows Iolanthe to return and they all meet her son Strephon (Bennett Umhau). The fairies learn that Strephon is deeply in love with Phyllis (Courtney Kalbacker), a ward of the Lord Chancellor (Gary Sullivan).
The two young lovebirds plan to be wed, but are stopped by the Lord Chancellor and the other peers of the House of the Lords. The peers, who are all desperately in love with Phyllis, take her away. Strephon is desolate and Iolanthe tries to console her son. Phyllis and the peers witnesses their tender conversation and misconstrues it as a lovers tryst. Unwilling to hear Strephon’s pleading, Phyllis denounces her love for him and agrees to marry one of two peers, Tolloller (Robert Teachout) or Mountararat (Tom Goode). Strephon calls on the Fairy Queen and the fairies to help him prove that Iolanthe is his mother. The peers incur the wrath of the fairies by poking fun at them and are punished by casting a spell to make Strephon a member of the House of Lords and making the peers vote to pass any bills that Strephon brings up. Typical of Gilbert and Sullivan, they story has a happy ending. Phyllis realizes her folly and agrees to marry Strephon, the lascivious Lord Chancellor learns that Iolanthe is actually his long dead wife, The Fairy Queen and the fairies all find love and by adding the simple word “doesn’t” to the fairy law, they can all marry humans.
Gilbert’s lyrics require a little extra “something” in their delivery and each member of the company was spot on with their delivery, especially the very expressive Stephen Herring as Private Willis (who ends up marrying the Fairy Queen). For me, the highlights in the show was when the House of Lords appear in ensemble, from their first rousing number, “Loudly Let the Trumpet Bay,” to the coordinated Can Can dancing, to their boyish professions of love to Phyllis in “Of All the Young Ladies I Know.” Their good natured ribbing at their own folly endears them, and you can’t help but love them. Umhau as Strephon has a rich, deep, and beautiful tone to his voice. Rountree’s pleading with the Lord Chancellor and finally revealing her true identity to him and sacrificing her own life for Strephon’s happiness in “It May Not Be” is a spell-binding performance that makes you want to get out of your seat to save her. Gary Sullivan is perfect as the Lord Chancellor. He is a little seedy, but also witty and funny. You just can’t help but root for him. The live orchestra under the direction of Maestro Joseph Sorge more than does justice to Sullivan’s brilliant score.
The fairies chorus provided an angelic harmony when they sang, but those fairies who did get solo parts were also standout. Celia (Teal Ruland), Leila (Brittany Stranathan), and Fleta (Amanda Jones) all gave solid performances in their role as fairies. Of the fairy chorus, Soprano Teal Ruland was one of my favorites of the night.
There were some missteps in the dances of the fairies and at times and it was hard to hear what the actors were saying if they weren’t standing directly under the microphones, but I am confident that these problems will be rectified before tonight’s performance.
The fairies in their brightly colored fairy tutus and wings were a beautiful sight as they went “Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither” across the stage. Set Designer Rebecca Myerson creates a lush forest with several very interesting elements including a bridge with and a multi-purpose toadstool (you can sit on it, stand on it, and dance on it!) for Act I and a very realistic London city skyline, including Big Ben for Act II. Lighting Designer, Dawson Smith, created a beautiful night sky in the backdrop for the city skyline. Smith created a soft glow in the forefront of the stage that gave you a warm feeling, as if it had put its arms around you and it is at this moment that you know that all will work out…Iolanthe will live, Strephon and Phyllis will be united, everyone will find true love.
If you haven’t seen a Gilbert and Sullivan show before, this might just be the perfect one to start off with. If you’re already a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, Iolanthe is also a perfect re-introduction. It has all the trademarks of Gilbert and Sullivan, a lively company, great vocals, and beautiful accompaniment by the live orchestra. It even has captions for those who are not already familiar with the show.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15 minute intermission.
Iolanthe plays on February 23 and March 1 and 2 at 8pm and 2pm matinees on Feb 24 and March 3 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre at The Rockville Civic Center – 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville, MD. Purchase tickets online, or by phone at (240) 314-8690, or at the box office.