This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of South Australia and as their celebratory offering they have staged a unique and enjoyably fresh take on The Gondoliers. Set in the soon to be opened “Gilbert and Sullivan Wing” of an art gallery, the paintings come to life, with characters pertinent to the opera stepping down into the main stage area while others from the wide G&S repertoire watch on from behind gold gilt frames.
At the heart of the production is the traditional story of the Palmieri brothers, Guiseppe (Patrick Witcombe) and Marco (Hew Wagner). They are a pair of humble gondoliers who have just married two local girls, Tessa (Vanessa Lee Shirley) and Gianetta (Lucy Baldock) and are looking forward to a simple life in Venice with their loves. Enter the requisite hitch to the plan in the form of Don Alhambra Del Bolero (an amusingly austere Peter Hopkins), the Grand Inquisitor, who informs the boys that one of them is actually the heir to kingdom of Barataria – the already married heir. Unfortunately no-one can be sure which one is the sovereign until their foster mother can be located and so both must travel to Barataria, sans wives, to rule jointly until the matter can be cleared up.
The whole show has an overarching feeling of good fun and the performers were unerringly enthusiastic. The leads all provided decent performances, playing to the frivolity of the script, though at times some vocals did lack the quality and force to make the music soar. This was also an issue for several of the featured soloists and may have been assisted through greater attention in detecting and avoiding microphone dead spots on stage. The band, under the direction of Ian Andrew, provided solid accompaniment. Standout vocal performances came from Liana Nagy as Casilda – the beautiful and obedient lady, wed in infancy to the heir and now torn between her duty and her heart as she pines for her own love, Luiz (a suitably gallant Nicholas Coxhill) – and Shirley as the forceful and amusing Tessa. The latter also excelled in playing up the humour in her role, creating a wonderful dynamic with Witcombe.
The directorial concept of the show (David Lampard) was an interesting one and the set looked suitably opulent while also being adaptable to create various spaces in the “art gallery” for the main action to take place. More perhaps could have been made of the interactions of the characters involved in the main action of The Gondoliers with those in the other paintings. When this did occur it was used to good comic effect and the rest of the time the tableaus shown were a charming retrospective of previous G&S productions and an opportunity for some of the great costumes created for them to get a second airing.
Those unfamiliar with the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, and particularly the G&S Society’s productions, may find some aspects of the show a little strange or difficult to follow, as the incorporation of unrelated characters does interrupt the more traditional plot line at times. However, it is all in good fun and rather entertaining, even if you don’t get some of the in-jokes. Those more acquainted with the shows and the company will no doubt love the cheeky humour of the cameo appearances throughout and enjoy the chance to reminisce.
While the production as a whole didn’t quite reach the heights it may have, it was still a very enjoyable show and a wonderful way to celebrate the anniversary of this beloved member of the local musical theatre scene.