This 1877 operetta, now celebrating its 140th anniversary, has been reduced to the nine major roles and the chorus has been eliminated. The result is a streamlined version that moves along at a steady pace under Albert Bergeret’s music and stage direction. The problem with the production is that although this is listed as a comedy, the new NYGASP revival wasn’t very funny except for several contemporary references such as “Amazon Prime” and the “changes at the White House.”
The Sorcerer has never been as popular as such G&S favorites as H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. Among the reasons given are that its satire of British class structure and its attack on respectability and the niceties of class distinction rubbed Englishmen and women the wrong way. In addition, the score has only one song that has become famous, the witty patter song, “My name is John Wellington Wells (I’m a dealer in magic and spells).”
While the satire is very mild in tweaking the hypocrisy of the British upper class, it is necessary for a revival today to emphasize the irony and the mockery inherent in the storyline to give it punch. This Bergeret’s production fails to do, making the operetta simply about a young couple having their first spat over taking a love potion, while the evening could have been so much more.
The operetta takes place in the English village of Ploverleigh. The fairly simple plot concerns the betrothal of Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre’s son Alexis of the Grenadier Guards to Aline, daughter of Lady Sangazure, literally “blue blood’ in French. To this event, Alexis has invited a professional sorcerer, John Wellington Wells of the establishment of J.W. Wells & Co., Family Sorcerers. Alexis wants to purchase a potion that when poured in the betrothal tea will unite all the unmarried villagers in matrimony, without regard to “the artificial barriers of rank, wealth, education, age, beauty, habits, taste and temper.” In fact, Alexis’ father has loved Aline’s mother from afar for many years and their union would be applauded by all, as is that of Alexis and Aline.
Unfortunately, the way the potion works is that a person falls in love with the first human seen after waking from a deep sleep. This leads to the most unlikely pairings including that of Sir Marmaduke with Mrs. Partlet, a Pew Opener, which does not go down well with Alexis at all, as does Lady Sangazure’s attraction to the tradesman Wells. When Aline secretly takes the potion without her fiancé’s knowledge, it is to the middle-aged reverend, Dr. Daly, that she is attracted not Alex who arrives too late. Only John Wellington Wells can undo this state of affairs. All ends happily except for Wells.
While the singing was generally of a high caliber as was the piano accompaniment of Andrea Stryker-Rodda, the production is at all times rather stolid and heavy, a demerit for a light comedy. Not all of the cast were equally well suited to their roles. A big disappointment was James Mills in the title role, much too young for the character, he was also too cheerful and lively in this reinterpretation of what is usually a somber and sinister depiction of one delving into the dark arts. Worst yet, in his justly famous patter song, his delivery was so fast and his enunciation so poor that many of Gilbert’s witty lines were lost. As the young hero Alexis, Carter Lynch wore a very short modern haircut which jarred with the late Victorian setting. His father Sir Marmaduke was played by Matthew Wages who seemed to be smiling at all times which undercut his role as the most socially prestigious person in town, while mezzo Angela Christine Smith, too young as Mrs. Partlet, makes her more stiff than wise.
Nevertheless, most of the singers acquitted themselves well. Laurelyn Watson Chase as the heroine Aline brought her lovely soprano to bear as well as a refreshing sense of irony to her role as a young woman who can see through her conventional fiancé. In the secondary love story, Sarah Caldwell Smith as Christine, hopelessly in love with older Vicar of Ploverleigh, demonstrated a focused and beautiful coloratura soprano. Celebrating his 37th year as Principal Baritone with NYGASP, Richard Alan Holmes made an amusingly wry Dr. Daly. Though The Sorcerer does not give Lady Sangazure much to do, mezzo Cáitlin Burke was a charmingly lovelorn widow in her “What is this fairy form I see before me?” duet with potion-maker Mills.
In Lou Anne Gilleland’s occasionally witty setting for the Village Square of Ploverleigh, the shops were labeled Ruth’s Pies and Yum Yum’s, making veiled references to other G&S operettas. It also allowed for a breathtaking scene in which hooded fiends of the night appeared through the back wall of the set. The lighting by Benjamin Weill offered some spooky effects of its own, turning the stage green or purple as the need arose. Gail J. Wofford was responsible for the elegant late Victorian costumes.
While The Sorcerer may not be top-drawer Gilbert & Sullivan or contain as many greatest hits in its score as some of their collaborations, it does have its own pleasures. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ new jewel box production was charming without being memorable, though the intimacy of the small theater added greatly to its effectiveness. This is a Victorian comedy of manners that at this date could use a bit of underlining to bring out its mild satire of British social class hypocrisy.
The season will continue with H.M.S. Pinafore at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College (East 68th Street between Park & Lexington Avenues), December 28 – 31, a New Year’s Eve Gala at Symphony Space (2537 Broadway at 95th Street) on Sunday, December 31 (8pm), and end with Ruddigore at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College (East 68th Street between Park & Lexington Avenues), April 14 -15, 2018.
The Sorcerer (September 15 – 17, 2017)
New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players
Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater, 10 W. 64th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-769-1000 or visit http://www.nygasp.org
Running time: two hours and five minutes with one intermission