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Princess Ida (2016)

Witty Gilbert & Sullivan operetta about the battle of the sexes, feminism and Darwinism in a staging whose diction made the clever lyrics hard to understand.

Amy Maude Heller, Kate Bass and Caitlin Burke in a scene from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Princess Ida” (Photo credit: William Reynolds)

Amy Maude Heller, Kate Bass and Caitlin Burke in a scene from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Princess Ida” (Photo credit: William Reynolds)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Princess Ida was a twelvemonth old – 20 years ago – at which time she was betrothed to Prince Hilarion, son of King Hildebrand. She is now 21 and it is time for her father, the irascible King Gama, to deliver her to her 22-year-old husband but where is she? Apparently, she has become a feminist in the interim and has started an all-women’s college in her father’s Castle Adamant where men are strictly forbidden. So with two close friends, the Prince climbs the wall of the castle and puts on women’s clothing in order to get near his bride. Chaos ensues when the men are discovered in the sacred precincts when one of them gets tipsy.

Completing New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ 40th Season was a rare revival of 1884 Princess Ida, the team’s eighth operetta. It is the only one in which the dialogue is in blank verse, it is presented in three acts, and it is based on a previous play by Gilbert. In the playwright/librettist’s second parody of Tennyson’s book-length poem The Princess, the themes include feminism, education for women, Darwinism and the Battle of the Sexes. While the operetta still displays its relevance and timeliness, the NYGASP production proved to be uneven in several categories.

While the colorful production set in the Middle Ages was eye-filling, the chorus and most of the women soloists in Albert Bergeret’s staging for NYGASP were difficult to understand when they were singing. Titles above the stage or on the back wall of the stage would have helped considering how much of the witty text was lost. The usually reliable David Auxier and Stephen Quint were a disappointment this time around. Auxier’s King Hildebrand was dour and morose in what is essentially a comic operetta, without making his character more than one-dimensional. Quint has two of the most famous G&S patter songs, “If you give me your attention I will tell you what I am” (with its refrain “And everyone says I’m such a disagreeable man” and “Whene’er I spoke” (…“and I’ve nothing whatever to grumble at!”), but presented each different chorus exactly the same way. Bergeret’s orchestra had a lilting tempo but occasionally the violin section sounded shrill – unless the music is written that way.

Nevertheless, the rest of the cast acquitted themselves well and seemed to be in on the fun of this medieval fairy tale which parodies contemporary issues in Victorian England. In the title role, Kate Bass as the steadfast and uncompromising college president brought her lovely soprano to the famed aria, “I built upon a rock,” though the words were a bit fuzzy. Cameron Smith’s Prince Hilarion backed by Daniel Greenwood’s Cyril and Matthew Wages’ Florian were stalwart and intrepid as the trio who break into the all-female precincts to find love. They had great fun with such numbers as “Gently, gently” and “I am a maiden.” Greenwood brought down the house with his drunken ditty, “Would you know the kind of maid sets my heart a flame-a” with its cheery refrain “Oh kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, kiss me!”

A first act production number from NYGASP’s revival of “Princess Ida” (Photo credit: William Reynolds)

A first act production number from NYGASP’s revival of “Princess Ida” (Photo credit: William Reynolds)

In an aria often cut, contralto Angela Christine Smith as the jealous second-in-command and Professor of Abstract Science, Lady Blanche, made every word count in the philosophic, “Come mighty Must!” For low comedy, Jason Whitfield, Seph Stanek and Andrew Herr as Gama’s macho sons made the most of their over-the-top posturing (which included showing their feminine side) in “We are warriors three” and “This helmet, I suppose.” Mezzo-soprano Amy Maude Helfer was pert and vivacious as Melissa, Lady Blanche’s daughter, while soprano Sarah Hutchison as Lady Psyche, Professor of Humanities, was wise and knowing. Hutchison was vastly entertaining in her Darwinian parody, “A lady fair, of lineage high (was loved by an Ape, in days gone by.”)

The delightful choreography that punctuated many of the numbers was by Janis Ansley Ungar, with additional choreography by singer David Auxier. The lush regal costumes were the responsibility of Gail J. Wofford and Stivanello Costume Company. The three very different palace and castle settings were the astute work of Albére. Benjamin Weill’s lighting used a generous color palette for the operetta’s various acts. Directed by conductor Albert Bergeret, the production was delightfully lighthearted. Missing were the many contemporary references that NYGASP usually interpolates, though several were added.

While Princess Ida may not be top-drawer Gilbert & Sullivan, it continues to demonstrate its relevance in a world where women are paid less than men, and old boys networks still rule. The scarcity of its revivals may be due more to the fact that it has much more of a message than some of the more frivolous G&S operettas. While the Gilbert & Sullivan Players revival left some things to be desired, overall it was an entertaining musical evening in the theater.

Princess Ida (May 21-22, 2016)

New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players

NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place, in Manhattan

For tickets or information, call 888-611-8183 or visit http://www.nygasp.org

Running time: two hours and 45 minutes with two intermissions

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (403 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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