Submitted by Peg Doman.
When Princess Ida was presented by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan society, the program featured a note that this season the Society is “Challenging the Canon”.
According to Catherine Weatbrook, President of the Society’s Board of Trustees, this means to update some social, gender and racial attitudes characteristic in the canon. It does not mean to change the music, the charm and silliness of the stories, music or the basic bones of the productions. Those are the same in contemporary productions. Of course, the gentleness of the satire coupled with very satisfying lyrical melodies gave rise to the ability to poke fun at modern contemporary political and societal mores. The hyperbolic nature of the attitudes expressed adds immeasurably to the fun.
As the basis of musical theater, G&S established a model of acceptable satire that echoes a contemporary audience’s mindset; they just poke fun with a clear, precise libretto all set to wonderful music with a clear, precise libretto.
In the recent production of Princess Ida, the chauvinism of the original was neutered by emphasizing the power, intelligence and competence of the women and the Society’s efforts to hire the best person for the part, as opposed to limiting performers to stereotypical whiteness. A racially diverse cast is headed by the lovely Lindsey Nakatani, a young woman with a thrilling voice. That said, the obfuscation and gibberish uttered by Lady Psyche, the philosophy professor at Ida’s college was certainly still there.
By markedly noting the cliché of the men’s single mindedness to control women and the pursuit of the manly art of war shows a satiric look at patriarchy and subjugation of anyone different. The fact that the monarchs of neighboring kingdoms married Prince Ida and Prince Hilarion, their infant children, certainly shows how ridiculous the concepts are. It harks back to Queen Victoria’s having one of her children in every monarchy in Europe.
I’m all for the modernization of the staging of the G&S operettas. As Gilbert directed his plays, he dictated every move, every word pronunciation and every expression the actors made. He eliminated the tricks that actors lazily use that did not carry his particular vision but the slavish adherence to his directorial style eventually dated the works. Don and I did see a production of the Mikado on TV from a Canadian company, possibly Montreal, that did a completely different production. It was free moving, fun and had contemporary references. Even if the meaning of some of allusions were over my American head, I loved Mikado even more. We’ve seen G&S productions from Seattle to Lakewood to Silverdale and enjoyed everyone.
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I had VHS tapes of Doyle Carte productions and the movements of the actors seemed so stiff and rigid, they almost took the humor out of the play.
In 1957 the (London) Times gave its description of G&S productions that shows why they are continuously popular. “The neat articulation of incredibilities in Gilbert’s plots is perfectly matched by his language…. His dialogue, with its primly mocking formality, satisfies both the ear and the intelligence. His verses show an unequalled and very delicate gift for creating a comic effect by the contrast between poetic form and prosaic thought and wording…. How deliciously [his lines] prick the bubble of sentiment…. [Of] equal importance… Gilbert’s lyrics almost invariably take on extra point and sparkle when set to Sullivan’s music…. Sullivan’s tunes, in these operas, also exist in a make-believe world of their own…. [He is] a delicate wit, whose airs have a precision, a neatness, a grace, and a flowing melody…. The two men together remain endlessly and incomparably delightful…. Light, and even trifling, though [the operas] may seem upon grave consideration, they yet have the shapeliness and elegance that can make a trifle into a work of art.” (Wikipedia)
The Society produces one G&S classic each season in the Leo K theater at Seattle Center; this year was Princess Ida. The next second production this season is Cabaret, a look at the social milieu of the Berlin demimonde just before WWII. It’s Kander’s & Ebbs’ bitter look at Germany’s slide into the barbarism of the Nazi regime. Playing the doomed and self-deceived Sally Bowles, the English star of the Kit Kat Klub is Tanesha Ross, a vibrant singer and dancer with Broadway, 5th Avenue, Village Theatre and an Amazon Prime series. Mark Rabe, Princess Ida’s flamboyant King Gama, plays Herr Schultz, the loving greengrocer doomed to lose his chance with boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider, who’s afraid to love a Jewish man.
Cabaret runs November 22 through December 15 at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Avenue, Seattle, on Capital Hill near Cal Anderson Park. Tickets are available now through the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society at seattlegilbertandsullivan.com/cabaret.
Here’s an interesting side note to the use of the Leo K Theatre at Seattle Repertory Theatre for the Society’s annual production: When the former Seattle Playhouse, now Seattle Repertory, moved to its current site in Seattle Center, the G&S Society pressed the management to include, within its charter with the city, permission to produce one production per year there, because they are a non-profit agency. Now that’s smart business, isn’t it?