2007-06-21 / Dining & Entertainment

Delightful absurdities fill Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Iolanthe'

By Cary Ginell soundthink@aol.com

FINE THEATER- Steve  Perren  as  the  Earl  of  Tolloller  and Stephanie Blaze as Celia help to bring Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta "Iolanthe" to life at Theatre on the Hill. FINE THEATER- Steve Perren as the Earl of Tolloller and Stephanie Blaze as Celia help to bring Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta "Iolanthe" to life at Theatre on the Hill. One of the newest and most welcomed theater companies in the Conejo Valley is the Ventura County Gilbert and Sullivan Repertoire Company. Founded in 2006, the company brings the delightful comic operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan to local theater-goers. Its recent production of G&S' "Iolanthe," which just completed its run at the Theatre on the Hill in Thousand Oaks, proves that the fledgling organization is well on its way to establishing itself as one of the premier performing groups in the county.

Librettist W.S. Gilbert (18361911) and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) established themselves in the last quarter of the 19th century as masters of the comic operetta. With Gilbert's biting wit and satirical subject matter and Sullivan's lively melodies, their shows became hugely successful in England and, in turn, America, a success that has never waned. "Iolanthe" (1882), their seventh collaboration, lampoons a variety of subjects, including class distinction, male/female roles and especially the stuffy British aristocracy.

The ludicrous plot has the usual G&S hallmarks: two lovers prevented from marrying, compounded misunderstandings and a tangled storyline that somehow straightens itself out in a satisfying (albeit ridiculous) ending for all involved.

In the story, the banished fairy Iolanthe, radiantly played by Mona King, has been sentenced to exile in a frog pond for daring to wed a mortal, who we find out is the stiff-upper-lipped Lord Chancellor, played by John Pillsbury, husband of director and company co-founder Rebecca Pillsbury. As the Lord Chancellor, Pillsbury is given the plum role in all G&S operettas: the dignified but bumbling authority figure who gets to perform the tongue-twisting patter songs that immortalized such veterans of the old D'Oyly Carte Opera Company as Martyn Green and John Reed.

Pillsbury's deliveries of such classics as "When I Went to the Bar" and "When You're Lying Awake" (aka "The Nightmare Song") were letter perfect.

The convoluted plot involves the efforts of Iolanthe's son Strephon (Eric Sheeler) to wed the beauteous Phyllis, ward of the Lord Chancellor, with interference effected by a gaggle of fairies and noblemen.

The performers were universally marvelous; however, several need to be singled out. Thousand Oaks' stalwart actor Steve Perren was born to play G&S roles. His Earl of Tolloller bookended the delightful Ken Johnson as the Earl of Mountararat as the wouldbe suitors of Phyllis, winningly played by April Crane.

The role of the Fairy Queen was meant to skewer Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle, which made its premiere in London just prior to the debut of "Iolanthe." Thus, the queen's costume was adorned with Brunhilde-esque breastplates, winged helmet and spear. As the queen, Carolyn Freeman Champ brought a robust zest to the role; she nearly stole every scene she was in.

Zach Spencer's threeman ensemble (keyboard, woodwinds and bass) did an excellent job reducing the orchestral score to its bare essence.

Choreographer Claudine Mason dealt superbly with an ensemble whose ages span more than half a century.

The intimacy of the Theatre on the Hill, located in the Hillcrest Center for the Arts above The Oaks mall, is ideal for G&S works, which are usually played on a large stage, as are most operas. However, the actors' physical nuances- every wink-wink and nudge-nudge- while lost in larger venues, are readily evident in the smaller room. The stage also gave the cast opportunities to engage the audience, the two lords enticing blushing female audience members to favor them with a waltz while fairies dispensed wrapped butterscotch candies in patrons' laps.

Next up is "Ruddigore," which will be staged during October. The company promises a champagne gala opening night on Oct. 5. Subsequent performances take place throughout the month. The plot is quite different from "Iolanthe," but appropriate for Halloween, featuring witches, ghosts and even a curse. For information and group discounts, call (805) 491-6103 or visit www.vcgsrc.org.

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