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A CurtainUp Review: Iolanthe
Dancing Fairies and Prancing Peers Initiate the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players' 30th Season

 Stephen O'Brien as the Lord Chancellor
Stephen O'Brien as the Lord Chancellor (Photo: Michael A. Nemeth)
When Iolanthe premiered at London's Savoy on November 25, 1882, a critic for the Morning Advertiser hailed the new opera as a welcome continuation of the "unique and peculiar Gilbertian school of humour." The critic went on to note that the "school they have founded may not, perhaps, last far beyond their own time; nor can it be said that their operas are likely to confer any benefit upon the future lyric stage. They write for the time, and leave more elevated forms of art to the care of others." Right he was about the uniqueness of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan's style, but his assessment of their influence on the lyric stage was way off.

Contemporary musical theater owes an enormous debt to this unique creative team and to Iolanthe as much, if not more, than any work in the G&S canon. While the bells and whistles of today's big musicals may have relegated productions of G&S operettas to short-term runs by companies like the New York Gilbert&Sullivan Players, Gilbert's satiric wit and polished verses and Sullivan's lyricism still sparkle and delight.

Typical of its predecessors, Iolanthe is a hodge-podge of reality and fantasy that manages to turn a nonsensical plot about a man who's half fairy and half mortal seeking happiness for his fairy and mortal self into a satire of the human condition generally, and the stodgy men of England's House of Peers in particular. The fantastical elements represented by the fairies handily introduce dancing into the mix and the decidedly non-fairylike Brunnhilde scaled fairy queen adds humor to the otherworldly as well as the worldly members of the cast.

The plot per se defies summary. In a tiny nutshell: The Lord Chancellor of England is in love with Phyllis, his shepherdess ward who loves Strephon, the half-fairy shepherd whose mother, Iolanthe, was condemned by the Fairy Queen to live at the bottom of a river for marrying a mortal. That mortal is, of course, none other than the Lord Chancellor. True to all fairy tales, everyone lives happily ever after. The complete libretto of this, as well as other G&S works, is available at the New York Gilbert&Sullivan website linked below. Iolanthe's real and lasting rewards, however, come from the words and music and the colorful way in which the gag that drives the proceeding is presented.

To insure that these rewards are delivered in full measure, Iolanthe is helmed by the company's founding father, Albert Bergeret, ably assisted by Jan Holland. As is customary with this company's productions, a number of the key roles are played by promising newcomers (Erika Person in the title role, Jennifer Lyann Rose as Phyllis and David Wannen as Strephon) as well as company veterans like Kelly Ersary as the Fairy Queen and Stephen O'Brien as the Lord Chancellor. City Center's large stage is amply filled by an attractive ensemble of Fairies and Peers -- the latter making a striking "March of the Peers" entrance from the aisle. Don't be surprised either if some of Gilbert's lines have been hilariously updated.

The two sets-- a backdrop for the Fairyland first act and another to suggest the Parliament world of the second -- are just sufficient to create a fully staged aura. However, the real bells and whistles are provided by the performances, the 25-piece orchestra, Gail J. Wofford's costumes and Sally Small's lighting design. You can expect the same from the productions to follow.

Whether you think of them as operettas, operas or musicals, the annual arrival of another Gilbert & Sullivan trio is always welcome. Unfortunately, you'll be reading this either after you've seen Iolanthe or too late to do so since January 11th was the last of its three performances.

Fortunately, two of the all-time G&S favorites, are still to come: H.M. S. Pinafore (January 16-18th) and The Mikado (January 23 to 25th). The class distinction theme of Pinafore may seem a bit dated nowadays, but when blended with excessive nationalism and personal ambition, you have a typically multi-faceted timeless Gilbert libretto. In the same way, the exotic Japanese setting of The Mikado, offers a never dated satirical view of human nature and political hypocrisy anywhere.

Both remaining shows of this season are wonderful for introducing youngsters to Gilbert & Sullivan. If you're going as family, aim for a Saturday matinee performance which provides a special free pre-performance Family Overture (at 1:45 pm) hosted by Artistic Director Albert Bergeret. For more performance details and reservations call 212/ 581-1212 or log on to

Other Links
For more pictures, full synopses of the current and past productions -- as well as links to fascinating details about Gilbert & Sullivan's ouevre, check out the NY Gilbert & Sullivan Players Website

Some reviews of squite different Gilbert & Sullivan productions: H.M.S. Pinafore at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. . .The Pirates of Pencanze on a ship at the South Street Seaport

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