“Is G&S passé?” Dr. Robert Cello was asked in 1973. “Come on,” he snorted, eyes flashing. “Gilbert and Sullivan is timeless; it’s political satire at its best.”
The first production for the newly formed Davis Comic Opera Company was a potpourri at Wyatt Pavilion. There was a “Mini Mikado,” a full length “Trial by Jury” and “an assemblage of songs, dances, madrigals, heroines, heroes, and other persons from lesser and better known G&S operettas.”
Violinist Judy Riggs was in the orchestra for that first production, under the musical direction of Richard Brunelle. Little did she know then that she would play in every DCOC production for the next 33 years. “It was a good way for me to keep my music going,” she said, modestly.
The production was directed by Cello, with a cast of performers and musicians whose names continued to grace DCOC programs for years to come, and read like a “who’s who”of Davis musical theater history: Dick Walters, Ivan Sandoval, Stephen Peithman, Amy Patten, Martha Dickman, Barbara Slemmons, Cappy Stewart, Malcolm McKenzie, Dorothy West...some 50 or so performers and technicians eager to present the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Cello was obviously right. The town took the fledgling company to its heart and the initial show played to sell-out houses, despite the oppressive summer heat in the Wyatt Pavilion.
The company readied its second production, “Ruddygore,” for the opening festivities of the newly built Veterans Memorial Theater, which would remain DCOC’s permanent home. The portraits of “ancestors” used in the second act were actual portraits of the actors who played the roles. (Jim Hutchinson still has his hanging in his home.)
By the time the 1975 season opened, with the first production of “Yeomen of the Guard,” Bob Cello had gone on sabbatical leave and in his place Barbara Slemmons took over as director, and with Richard Brunelle on stage as Jack Point, musical direction was handled by Dan Parsons. The monumental 4-level castle, designed by the late David Wagner was the most ambitious to date. Again, the production garnered rave reviews, and the reputation of the young company seemed to be established.
Over its 33 year history, the Davis Comic Opera Company presented all 12 of the commonly produced Gilbert & Sullivan works and introduced the town to some 14 other period operettas, as well as two originally written works by Stephen Peithman and Bev Sykes. More than 50 shows in all.
The 1991 “Iolanthe,” directed by Charlotte French, with musical direction by Frederick Lange, was a high point for Stephen Peithman. It was a new way to look at an old favorite, being presented as if by a traveling theater company. Scenic designer Fred Forester built a set inside a huge crate, sitting on a bare stage. “Suddenly the overture began, guys came out and opened the crate and it was like a popup book. That was a magical moment,” Peithman recalled.
“Iolanthe” was not the first show to give an innovative look to an old favorite. Dan Kryston directed the 1978 “Princess Ida” (with musical direction by Carl Naluai) as a cartoonesque fairy tale, which offered opportunity for the most outrageous buffoonery in the company’s then-six year history. The sets by Richard Rose and costumes by Charlotte French could not have been more over the top. Malcolm McKenzie was a jovial, pot bellied King Hildebrand and Ida’s brother Arac, played by Henry Teichert, was described as “a tin soldier of a Kewpie doll.”
French also liked the 1993 production of “Mikado,” she directed, with Ralph Netz in the title role and Peter Shack playing Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. She recalled that Shack’s young son cried because he “didn’t want Daddy to marry that witch woman.” (Lenore (Turner) Heinson, as Katisha)
A Martha Dickman favorite moment was professor/actor/director/singer Harry Johnson’s performance in the 1992 production of “Tintypes,” with a cast of five representing several well-known historical figures of the era from 1897 to the first World War. Directed by Stephen Peithman with musical direction by Patricia Lange, this was a show whose talented cast included three directors and four choreographers.
“I loved ‘Naughty Marietta,’” said Craig Morphis. “It was directed by Steve Peithman and what a fabulous cast, with Martin Beal and Anna Vikre, but it was so old fashioned nobody came to see it.”
“I liked it when we stretched ourselves,” said Peithman. “There was a lot of concern about doing Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” (which Peithman directed), for example, but we did a magnficent job. I was so proud!” The 1981 production, with musical direction by Frederick Lang, set design by Ed Nordsrom and costume design by Charlotte French, is still considered one of the all-time favorite productions.
Jim Hutchinson’s personal favorites are shows where he had the opportunity to step into the spotlight, as Sir Joseph in “Pinafore” and as John Wellington Wells in “The Sorcerer.”
Walt Sykes remembers the time an owl got into the theater and settled in the flies, and the audience was confused by the feathers floating down onto the stage during Act 1.
What may have been the scariest moment in DCOC history occurred during the 10th anniversary show. A storm caused the drains to back up. Water came in through the loading dock of the Veterans Memorial Theater, across the stage and down into the orchestra pit, where there was a lot of electrical equipment. Everyone mopped and swept and bailed. Curtain time was 12 minutes late.
In a 1974 interview, Bob Cello indicated plans of growth for the fledgling company, and expressed hope to expand to works by other composers as well.
If Cello could be here as DCOC looks back on its 33 year history, he’d be quite proud of this baby he birthed back in 1973.