KPBS AIRDATE: September 14, 2001
SUNG: To the tune of “Modern Major General”
It’s often problematic to stage plays that are historical
They tend to be didactic or abstruse or sophomorical
But this one’s not cartoonish; it’s not ‘Lion King’ or ‘Seussical’
In short, a magic model for a biographic musical.
Sorry… I just can’t talk about Gilbert and Sullivan without breaking into patter-song. Those guys set the standard for brilliant, satiric, tongue-contorting lyrics perfectly meshed with lilting or syncopated melodies. That’s what Sondheim was nursed on, I’m sure, not to mention Lerner & Lowe and Rodgers & Hammerstein. But alas, the comic opera, and the Gilbert & Sullivan canon, have dropped off the stage and into the remainder bin. The recent Mike Leigh movie “Topsy Turvy” awoke some folks to the genius that was G&S, and the Lamb’s Players’ revival of Ian Taylor’s 1983 biographical revue should serve to pull more San Diegans out of musical somnambulance.
“Tarantara! Tarantara!” traces the thorny but lucrative partnership of librettist William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur S. Sullivan, from their first collaboration, “Thespis,” in 1871 through 2-1/2 decades of musical marvels including “HMS Pinafore,” “The Mikado” and “The Pirates of Penzance” (from which the title comes), moving on to their separate knighthoods, awkward estrangement and ultimate deaths. Of course, we get all the dirt: Sullivan’s kidney disease, social obsessions and profligate lifestyle, Gilbert’s cynicism, paranoia and curmudgeonly ways. And we learn of the final breakup over a small sum of money to re-carpet the world-famous Savoy Theater, which they jointly owned with their famous producer, D’Oyly Carte. The back-story is titillating, but it’s the music that thrills.
The Lamb’s Players ensemble is outstanding! The singing is magnificent — though there’s really only one cast member who can effortlessly and impeccably handle the rate, breathing and rhythm of those tricky patter songs — that’s John Polhamus, who’s actually performed in England with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. But everyone else is terrific, too; Doren Elias does his best work in years as the sanguine Sullivan, and David Cochran Heath does wonderfully crusty justice to the grumpy Gilbert. Cris O’Bryon plays his heart out on piano, and Jeffrey Miller’s direction keeps it all spry and spirited. Special kudos to Jeanne Reith for her gorgeous array of ever-changing costumes… beautifully and rapidly applied to each of the 9 operettas condensed or represented. With apologies to Gilbert, ‘their object all sublime, they achieved in a tad-too-much time….but ‘give three cheers and one cheer more for…. the cast, the singing and the words and score!’
(MUSIC, out: ‘I Am the Capt. of the Pinafore’ from “HMS Pinafore”)
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.