2011-09-29 / Dining & Entertainment

‘Gondoliers’ is musically enchanting

Play review
By Cary Ginell


WOMAN SCORNED—Robyn Saxer stars as Tessa in Ventura County Gilbert and Sullivan Repertoire Company’s production of “The Gondoliers.” The show runs through Oct. 16. 
CARY GINELL/Acorn Newspapers WOMAN SCORNED—Robyn Saxer stars as Tessa in Ventura County Gilbert and Sullivan Repertoire Company’s production of “The Gondoliers.” The show runs through Oct. 16. CARY GINELL/Acorn Newspapers The Ventura County Gilbert and Sullivan Repertoire Company continues its stellar series of comic operettas this season with “The Gondoliers,” a spirited, melodious offering that is as charming as it is musically entrancing.

Originally produced in 1889, “The Gondoliers” was the duo’s final success, running for more than 550 performances, the fifthlongest running musical theater show at the time.

Composer Arthur Sullivan had grown weary of writing the light comic travesties and wanted to pursue more serious endeavors, but librettist W. S. Gilbert persisted. Sullivan finally agreed to start work on “The Gondoliers.” But quarrels between the pair and producer Richard D’Oyly Carte resulted in a rift that virtually ended their careers. Gilbert and Sullivan would only produce two subsequent shows, neither of which was successful.


TALES TOLD IN MUSIC—Gary Saxer, left, and Michael Freed portray the Brothers Palmieri in “The Gondoliers.” The show is playing at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. TALES TOLD IN MUSIC—Gary Saxer, left, and Michael Freed portray the Brothers Palmieri in “The Gondoliers.” The show is playing at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. “Gondoliers” presents thematic hallmarks familiar to G&S fans: mistaken identities, obscured royalty, lovers separated by their classes, satirical swipes at snobbery and the slothfulness of high society.

The story takes place in 18th century Venice. Two gondoliers, brothers Marco (Gary Saxer) and Giuseppe (Michael Freed), are so handsome that they are permitted to select their wives from a bevy of fetching contadines (Italian peasant girls).

The men become aware that one of them is the presumptive king of Barataria, a fictional kingdom whose name Gilbert appropriated from Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” Until the real king can be identified, the brothers agree to rule jointly, upending the kingdom’s class structure by tempering it with “Republican equality.”

The cast includes nine major players, with all performing so brilliantly it is impossible to single anyone out. Company regular Saxer delivers another buoyant performance as Marco, while Freed, a cantor and veteran of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, matches him as Giuseppe.

The brothers’ wives are played by two supremely talented young actresses and singers: Frances Pillsbury, daughter of producer/actor John and director Rebecca, and Robyn Saxer, daughter of Gary.

Each adds rich, melodious voices to their endearing comic performances, with Robyn singing one of Sullivan’s most lilting melodies, “When a Merry Maiden Marries” in Act 1.

Frances Pillsbury alternates with Molly Siskin in the role of Gianetta.

The gondoliers and their wives sing one of G&S’s most delightful quartets at the close of Act 1: “Then One of Us Will Be a Queen.”

Playing the stuffy and ostentatious Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro are John Pillsbury, who is used to playing G&S upper crust snobs, and Tamarah Ashton, who delights in her comic solo “On the Day When I Was Wedded.”

Pillsbury is featured in the obligatory patter song “In Enterprise of Martial Kind,” defining his character with a run-on string of adjectives.

Their daughter Casilda, the queen-to-be who is searching for her king, is played by Tara McGrath, adding a magnificent mezzo soprano voice to the mix.

Jeff Berg brings his stunning tenor to the role of Luiz, the Duke’s attendant, whose character takes on a greater significance by the end of the play. The stentorian tones of John McCool Bowers are perfectly suited for the Grand Inquisitor, an imposing presence garbed in black-and-white.

In addition to Rebecca Pillsbury’s flawless direction, mention should be made of Chris Hanes’ impressive set design, which necessitated the crafting of a Venetian canal, complete with motorized gondola and two drawbridges.

Zach Spencer led the fivepiece orchestra; the sumptuous costumes were created by a crew headed by Erin Heulitt and Julia Gump, and the seamless choreography was by Jeff Wallach.

The two words that best describe this production of “The Gondoliers” are “Rapture, rapture!”

“The Gondoliers” continues through Sun., Oct. 16 at the Theatre on the Hill at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts, 403 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For information, visit www.vcgsrc.org or call (805) 381-1246.

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