The lights dim, a hush falls over the murmuring audience and the conductor raises his hand. The slow swell of strings fills the theatre to the rafters, and soon the darkened room is transported to the English countryside by whimsical flute and clarinet in the midst of a seamless overture.
The curtain rises, and two fresh-faced and apple-cheeked darlings awake centre stage, rubbing their eyes while their fairy sisters flirt with summer breezes and frolic beneath the ever-blue skies.
So begins the Victoria Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of Iolanthe, a comic opera that sets fairies against the British Peers of the Realm, satirizes both the pomp and circumstance of government and marriage, and ultimately strives for a happily ever after for all involved.
At the heart of it, Iolanthe is a classic love story, with misunderstandings and obstacles wreaking havoc for its lovers. Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, is madly in love with the beautiful Phyllis, the Lord Chancellor’s ward of court. They plan to marry, despite the Lord Chancellor’s disapproval, threatening penal servitude for the poor young Strephon, until his fairy mother Iolanthe steps in with her horde of sisters to set things to rights. Unfortunately, Phyllis assumes Strephon has betrayed her with the ever-youthful Iolanthe, and, heartbroken and scorned, breaks off their engagement.
Jonathan Woodward plays Strephon wonderfully, without guile and with eyes only for his beloved Phyllis, played by a passionate and powerfully-voiced Inge Illman. Both Gilbert and Sullivan veterans, the pair have charming chemistry on stage, and their voices rise and fall in well-balanced harmony that is a treat to listen to.
Adrian Sly’s performance as the Lord Chancellor is jovial, full of good-natured cheek, and the rapid-fire and flawless delivery of his lyric-intensive musical numbers is enough to leave one breathless.
And the fairies, from Merissa Cox’s imperious portrayal of the Queen of the Fairies to Andrea Palin’s devoted Iolanthe, to the colourful chorus tripping hither and thither, were playful and on point, if sometimes a little difficult to understand as they sung en masse.
The orchestra is to be commended for their masterful performance of a gorgeous score, led by concert master Pablo Diemecke and music director George Corwin.
An amateur group though they may be, the actors dealt with the occasional hiccup like pros, without breaking character.
Such as when Strephon sat down with such dejected despair at being denied his beloved’s hand in marriage that he broke his flute with a resounding crack. Or when Phyllis’ bustle bow dropped to the floor as she and Strephon were finally lovingly reunited after their misunderstanding.
In both cases, the actors simply moved the objects out of the way in keeping with the emotions of the scenes, and though the audience in all likelihood noticed, it didn’t distract from the action.
Billed as a comic opera, Iolanthe avoided straying into slapstick or campy territory, instead serving up wit and tongue-in-cheek comments while retaining drama and surprise, particularly as the operetta neared its climactic conclusion in the second act.
Iolanthe’s impending death sentence, with a low-lit stage and tension mounting, held the audience in such sway that the entire theatre collectively held their breath, hoping for a last-minute reprieve.
This reviewer isn’t going to spoil the ending, save to say that for engaging characters, strong vocal performances and enchanting music, it’s a show worth seeing.
If you missed the performances at the Mary Winspear, Iolanthe is at at the McPherson Theatre in Victoria, March 28 at 8 p.m., and March 29 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $48, and family rates are available. Contact the McPherson box office at 250-386-6121 or visit rmts.bc.ca/events/Iolanthe-McPherson-Playhouse to purchase.