Monday, October 11, 2004


Everyone is in love with Phyllis. And why wouldn’t they be?

Davis Comic Opera company newcomer Kelly Mustain has the role of the young ward of Chancery in DCOC’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe,” directed by Jill Wright, which opened at the Veterans Memorial Theatre this week end, for a three week end run. Mustain is cute as a button, with a terrific voice to boot and it’s easy to see why everyone loves her.

Phyllis has a few problems. She doesn’t know that her fiance is half a fairy, the girl she thinks is his secret girlfriend is actually his mother, her guardian and all the noble peers are in love with her and it looks like she might have to marry an old man she does not love.

Not a good day for Phyllis.

“Iolanthe,” the seventh collaboration of the British dynamic duo, opened at the Savoy theatre in 1882. The Aristocracy had always been the target of W.S. Gilbert’s biting wit, but in this "fairy opera," the House of Lords is lampooned as a bastion of the ineffective, the privileged and the dim-witted. The political party system and other institutions also come in for a dose of satire.

DCOC gives a visually striking, often sprightly production that brought many laughs to the audience.

Marguerite Morris plays the title character, Iolanthe, a fairy banished many years ago for breaking the biggest fairy law: she married a mortal. Morris has a beautiful voice and brings much depth to the character, with an especially poignant and tender scene in Act 2.

Rachel Robinson, as the Queen of the Fairies, is an interesting bit of casting. Gilbert & Sullivan were famous for including a large matronly woman in each of their operettas--Little Buttercup in HMS Pinafore and Katisha in The Mikado, for example. The Fairy Queen is traditionally an older, larger woman (making the line “I see no objection to stoutness--in moderation” worthy of laughs). However, Robinson is neither older nor larger. And for once, the casting makes sense, since the dialog indicates that the nice thing about fairies is that they are immortal and never grow old.

The Fairy Queen is approached by fairies Celia (Rhiannon Guevin) and Leila (Savanah Scott) to forgive Iolanthe and return her to her fairy band. Guevin and Scott are delightful fairies, Scott bewitchingly impish and 14 year old Guevin coyly petulant. Both are consistently fun to watch.

As Iolanthe’s young son, Strephon, Roy Spicer is a likeable fellow who gives an energetic performance. From his first entrance, one has the sense that this is a professional at work. He has a strong baritone voice and there is nice chemistry between himself and Phyllis.

Craig Morphis’ Lord Chancelor is simply wonderful. Morphis takes command of any stage and never fails to deliver a memorable performance. The Lord Chancellor struggles with his love for Phyllis and his sense of duty, which will not permit him to award her hand to himself. Morphis’ rendition of the “Nightmare Song” was crisp and clean with every rapid-fire syllable understandable.

The Peers are led by Lord Tolloller and Lord Montararat. Peter Shack as Tolloller has never been better. He made the role his own.

Montararat is played by long-time DCOC favorite, Malcolm MacKenzie, who effectively portrayed the peer as a doddering old fool. MacKenzie was a late addition to the cast, replacing the original actor who was unable to continue, and had not yet learned all his lines, which he read from a notebook he carried around with him on stage. This may also explain why he lacked his usual forceful projection, having difficulty getting some of his lyrics over the orchestra.

Malcolm’s son Ken MacKenzie played Private Willis, the Grenadier Guard with the impossibly tall fur hat, who catches the eye of the Fairy Queen. Willis’ song does not fit comfortably within Ken’s vocal range but he made the best of it.

The orchestra, under the direction of Sean Bianco was full and rich and special kudos are due trumpeters Christopher Rumery and Paul Marenco for their competent handling of the introduction to the March of the Peers.

Sets were designed by Robin Houston, who has created an enchanting fairy glade, including a stone bridge arching over the orchestra pit. The second act, set in front of the Houses of Parliament includes a Big Ben so realistic that even the hands on the clock move.

The sets are enhanced by the intricate lighting design of Richard Williams.

Laura Coe’s costumes were colorful, with wispy fairy garb and rich fur-lined capes for the peers.

Will Phyllis and Strephon wind up together? Only Iolanthe, whose dark secret is the key to their happiness, knows the answer to that question. The peers and the fairies are virtually at war, and long friendships are nearly torn asunder. But in the end, it is the Legal Mind which comes up with a clever solution to the problem.