More than a century on, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are just as celebrated and enjoyed as when they first arrived on the theatre scene, and this weekend, the Mary Winspear Centre gets to play host to the Victoria Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of the fairy-filled and ever-funny comic opera, Iolanthe.
The story follows Iolanthe, a fairy who committed the ultimate sin of marrying a mortal and was banished from the fairy realm, her death sentence only commuted on her promise that she would never see her husband again. Twenty-five years later, missing her desperately, her fairy sisters successfully plead with their queen to allow Iolanthe back into the fold, where she reveals that she had a son, Strephon, with her mortal husband.
Strephon, hopelessly in love with the low-born shepherdess Phyllis, the Lord Chancellor’s ward of court, calls on Iolanthe for help in overcoming the Chancellor’s objections to their marriage, unwittingly putting his devoted mother in danger of her life.
Add in an assemblage of the Peers of the Realm, a series of misunderstandings, ingenious satire and brilliant music, and the show is a true treat for fans of musical theatre and Gilbert and Sullivan.
“It’s been very fulfilling,” says stage director Jennifer Hoener with a smile as she relaxes for a brief moment in the Charlie White Theatre.
This is Hoener’s directorial debut, and though the experience has been full of unexpected challenges and surprises, she’s enjoyed herself immensely.
“I have loved the creative process,” she says. “I’ve loved imagining what this would look like on stage, and listening to the music and matching the emotions and movements of the actors with the music.”
Hoener began her artistic career as a dancer, and so has an intimate relationship with music and its effects. She tried to teach the actors to listen to and internalize the music, and to let the rise and fall of the melodies inspire a natural reaction to come bubbling up from within, rather than putting on a mask of emotion.
“If you hear suspenseful music, you’re going to feel that,” says Hoener. “You don’t need to think, ‘I’m going to act suspenseful now.’”
It’s a way for the cast to make a personal connection to the show, and have the kind of passion and emotion invested that captivates an audience.
Hoener found her own connection with the operetta when she was reading the first scene between the fairies and their queen, and it sparked a memory of a beloved ballet teacher who had since passed on.
“I saw in this story, the fairies having that same reaction and respect for their queen as we did for our ballet teacher,” she says. “That was my way in to the show.”
Translating that through to the actors was the next step.
“It was really important to (Jennifer) to have well-rounded characters,” says Inge Illman, who plays Phyllis, the lovestruck shepherdess. That meant cutting out the stereotypes and getting into the nuances of the character, which was a struggle at times for Illman.
“Phyllis has been a little more difficult,” she says. “Not in terms of singing, but in getting into her character.”
Last year Illman played Josephine, the upper-class Captain’s daughter in the society’s production of the HMS Pinafore, and says that role lent itself to a natural haughty air, but delving into the lower-class Phyllis was a little trickier.
“Phyllis has to be very real,” she says.
Along with developing a three-dimensional character, Illman has been enjoying rehearsing with the high quality of music in the show, which she says is more akin to true opera.
A lot of musical theatre productions focus on acting first and music second, she says, but Gilbert and Sullivan are more about the music first.
“For me, that’s a huge part of it,” she says.
“This (production style) really bridged the gap between opera and what we have now as musical theatre,” adds Jonathan Woodward, who is set to charm audiences as the half-fairy Strephon opposite Phyllis.
“(Iolanthe) is a particularly brilliant piece of satire,” he continues. “Not only of British parliament, which is quite a bit like Canadian parliament, but musically, they’re making fun of Mendelssohn and Wagner.”
Asked if he has a favourite scene, he admits it’s the beginning of the show that tops the list.
“We do a lot of fun stuff, but one of my favourites is the entrance of the Peers.”
Woodward had the chance to see the procession just a few days ago in its entirety, and says “the choreography they’re doing is just funny as all get-out.”
Though not generally one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most well-known works, Iolanthe has gained a reputation in theatre crowds as perhaps their best.
“I didn’t really have an appreciation for Gilbert and Sullivan until I started working with these shows,” says Hoener. “This is the most beautiful music, in my opinion, of all their shows.”
Performances run tonight (March 20) at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Charlie White Theatre at the Mary Winspear Centre, 2243 Beacon Ave. in Sidney.
Tickets are $44 for adults, $42 for seniors, $20 for youth, or $100 for a family. Tickets are available at the box office, marywinspear.ca or by calling 250-656-0275.
For more information on the company, visit gilbertandsullivanvictoria.ca.