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The Yeomen of the Guard

Though it could have used a tad more sparkle at times, this version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most serious operetta contained lovely musical moments.

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Kyle Yampiro and ensemble in the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of “The Yeomen of the Guard” (Photo credit: Courtney Weill)

Mark Dundas Wood

Mark Dundas Wood, Critic

By 1888, librettist/lyricist William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan had become accustomed to compromising with each other in the creation of their comic operas—not that compromises were easy for either of those strong-willed writers. The project that year, The Yeomen of the Guard (their eleventh operetta together), was a struggle to complete, and there were considerable disagreements along the way. Sullivan, who harbored ambitions of writing grand opera (which he eventually did, sans Gilbert, with 1891’s Ivanhoe), kept pushing Yeomen in a more serious direction. The impatient Gilbert reminded him that while this piece was meant to be different in tone from earlier works, at least some outwardly comedic elements were called for.

As it turned out, Yeomen became the most sober-sided of the duo’s works (unless you count their 1880 oratorio, The Martyr of Antioch). It lacks the famous “topsy-turvy” situations that provided the foundation for the social and political satire of some of the best-known G&S works (H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado). This operetta focuses on matters of life and death in a less-cartoonish way than those earlier pieces. And although the story is a whimsical confection, it’s iced with a thick coating of pathos in the character of lovelorn Jack Point. Yeomen presents a special challenge to companies that revive it. The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ latest incarnation—directed and conducted by the company’s artistic director, Albert Bergeret—does a reasonably good job of blending the libretto’s comic and melodramatic elements.

Abigail Benke and Kyle Yampiro in the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of “The Yeomen of the Guard” (Photo credit: Courtney Weill)

The scenario unfolds in the shadow of the Tower of London, sometime in the 16th century. War hero Colonel Fairfax (Daniel Greenwood) faces beheading, having been convicted on a trumped-up sorcery charge. Earlier, Fairfax had twice saved the life of Sergeant Meryll (Kyle Yampiro), a Tower guardsman. Consequently, the grateful Meryll conspires with daughter Phoebe (Abigail Benke) and son Leonard (Cameron Smith) to free Fairfax, disguise him as Leonard and make him a member of the guard. Enter a pair of itinerant entertainers: jester Jack Point (James Mills) and singer Elsie Maynard (Laurelyn Watson Chase). A blindfolded Elsie agrees to marry the doomed Fairfax so that, post-execution, his worldly possessions won’t go to the kinsman who’d made the sorcery charge. When it’s discovered that Fairfax has “escaped” from his death-row cell, Elsie, who was supposed to have become Fairfax’s widow, instead finds herself the wife of a very-much-alive fugitive. This development thwarts Point’s romantic notions regarding Elsie.

There’s not a lot of uproarious comic shtick in any of these elaborate plot turns, although there are some nice comic moments involving the boorish and sadistic jailer, Wilfred Shadbolt (the talented Matthew Wages). As jesters go, Point is more a witty wag than a hilarious jokester, and Mills and Bergeret wisely refrained from interpolating zany or slapstick comedic bits to make the part funnier to 21st century audiences. On the other hand there were parts of the production that seemed a little sluggish. Just because a comedy has somber undertones doesn’t mean it should be played in an enervated way. And, one more point about Point:  Perhaps his character arc would have been clearer had Mills (and Bergeret) somehow made evident in the early scenes the jester’s affectionate feelings toward Elsie. Here, the news of Point’s broken heart came as something of a bolt from the blue when it surfaced in the Act I finale.

Abigail Benke, Daniel Greenwood and Laurelyn Watson Chase in the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of “The Yeomen of the Guard” (Photo credit: Courtney Weill)

As for cast standouts, Greenwood excelled both musically and dramatically. His ringing, expressive vocals and crisp diction made him an audience favorite. And he created an effective character shift when the assertive and seemingly self-adoring Fairfax shaves his beard to become a rather diffident novice yeoman. Another notable turn came from David Auxier as the austere, thoughtful Sir Richard Cholmondeley, the Tower lieutenant. (Auxier also served as choreographer, providing a few athletic dance moves of the sort not always seen in Gilbert & Sullivan productions.) In terms of musicality, Benke’s Phoebe had a warm, winning, almost musical-theater sound, while Watson Chase prompted goose bumps with her vibrant top notes. The production’s orchestra sounded rich and full from overture to Act II finale.

The blazing-red Beefeater costumes (by Gail J. Wofford) were natural eye-catchers. Jan Holland’s garb for the rest of the company was a bit drab by comparison, although two costumes for Elsie (her beribboned busker’s dress and her elaborate wedding outfit) were pleasing. Benjamin Weill’s lighting design gradually and subtly moved Act II from moonlight to daylight. But Richard Manfredi and Albère’s bland scenic design didn’t evoke the imposing power of the Tower. The structure’s terrible might was instead embodied by the stern prison housekeeper, Dame Carruthers (Angela Christine Smith), who sings a stirring anthem to the “panoply of stone.”

Abigail Benke, Laurelyn Watson Chase and Angela Christine Smith and ensemble in the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of “The Yeomen of the Guard” (Photo credit: Courtney Weill)

Dame Carruthers is, unfortunately, another of those overbearing, man-crazy matrons that Gilbert was so fond of including in his libretti. Her foil and intended prey is the alarmed widower Meryll. However, in a refreshing departure, Gilbert also gave this operetta a likable female character (Phoebe) who is plagued by a frightful suitor (the unappetizing Shadbolt). This takes the edge off the usual Savoyard sexism, at least to some degree.

The Yeomen of the Guard (through October 28, 2018)

New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP)

The Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, 695 Park Avenue at 68th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets or more information, call 212-772-4448 or visit http://www.nygasp.org

Running time: two hours and 55 minutes with one intermission

 

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Mark Dundas Wood
About Mark Dundas Wood (3 Articles)
Mark Dundas Wood contributes to the Bistro Awards website and The Clyde Fitch Report in addition to Theaterscene.net. Previously he wrote for American Theatre and Backstage. Credits as dramaturg include New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. His stage adaptation of Henry James’ "The Tragic Muse" appeared at the Metropolitan Playhouse. He received an MFA in theater (dramaturgy) from Columbia University.
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