In Ira Levin's stage mystery Deathtrap, a playwright glumly declares a rival's play so good that a talented director couldn't hurt it. That's how good the best works of Gilbert and Sullivan are. Take, for instance, The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria. Not, perhaps, on the level of The Mikado or H.M.S. Pinafore, it's still accomplished enough in the G&S canon that even a silly anachronistic gag -- calling the setting "Venice Beach" instead of "Venice" -- can't hurt the otherwise charming production now at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre.
Director Claude N. Pensis quite plainly is talented. He has mounted the 1889 work with graceful and ticklingly witty stage movements that conclude in ingenious tableaux. Even with dozens of performers on the fairly small stage, there's no sense of chaos in the big group scenes -- Pensis, perhaps assisted by choreographer Irene Stojanov, shows how to deploy bodies in satisfying patterns that help communicate the action.
The "Venice Beach" shtick is his only corny touch, but it doesn't do any real harm, because it isn't very rigorously pursued. Mainly, the beach theme is a design motif in Paul B. Bridgeman's handsome set, which has a seaside arcade feel, with barbells, a lifeguard chair (complete with lifeguard) and lots of beach balls. Nola Yergen's lovely costumes are still 19th-century faux-Italian -- though the "Chorus of Contadine" appears in old-fashioned bathing suits at one point.
The plot is typically preposterous. It has to do with a lost -- and unwitting -- king of a Ruritanian island country called Barataria, abducted as an infant for his own good when his father became a Wesleyan Methodist. A variety of plot complications leads Don Alhambra, the Grand Inquisitor of Venice who abducted the kid, to believe that he has since become one of two gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, who were raised as brothers in the city and who have just married a couple of local beauties, Gianetta and Tessa. Don Alhambra regards these marriages as inconvenient, however, since the king was betrothed in infancy to Casilda, the daughter of the ambitious Duke of Plaza-Toro . . .
You get the idea. There are gondoliers and coy flirtatious maidens and pompous aristocrats and star-crossed lovers, and they all sing to each other in the wonderfully skewed Victorian hip-hop of G&S.
Part of what makes the Savoy Operas such unique treasures is that you don't have to hear them done by Pavarotti or Kathleen Battle to hear them done justice. If a reasonably capable singer has good diction, good rhythm and a good sense of humor, he or she can pull off most of G&S just fine. And when they're done well, they're sublime -- Gilbert's intricate and somehow subversive pedantries give a kind of pleasure that's tough to equal in the English-language theater.
The performances in the Ethington Gondoliers are variable, of course, as one expects in a student performance, but no one is glaringly bad, and most of the leads are splendid. In the title roles, Jason M. Hammond and Nicholas Halonen are buoyant, likable goofs, and Jennifer Gordon and Jessica Underwood are sweet and winning as their love interests. Jeffrey Gray has the right comic sense of strained dignity as the Duke, and JonMark Shillington has a hilariously pained expression as the Duke's put-upon attendant Luiz, who, of course, is in love with Casilda.
The evening's vocal standout, though, is the Don Alhambra of Michael Vreeland (Daniel Gourley also plays the role at certain performances), who gives a dry clarity to every syllable. Or, one might put it in the context of Venice Beach: He knows how to bust a rhyme.
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