Kimilee Bryant, Daniel Greenwood and Stephen O’Brien in a scene from
(Photo credit: William Reynolds)
The new production of The Sorcerer, which played for two performances only, at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, was directed by Albert Bergeret, the Artistic Director of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (GASP). Maestro Bergeret, who is well-known for breathing life into Gilbert and Sullivan’s neglected works, took their Sorcerer out of the dust heap and spun it into magical topsy-turveydom.
The plot is too intricate to retell at any length. But suffice it to say that it revolves around a sorcerer’s love potion and the village of Ploverleigh. Love is in the air, and Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre (Keith Jurosko), an elderly baronet, has invited guests to his Elizabethan mansion to celebrate the betrothal of his son Alexis (Daniel Greenwood), a Grenadier Guardsman, and the rich Aline Sangazure (Kimilee Bryant), the only daughter of Lady Sangazure (Caitlin Burke). Aristocrats aside, Constance Partlet (Sarah Caldwell Smith), the daughter of humble pew-opener Mrs. Partlet (Elizabeth Picker), has heart-stirrings of her own, and confesses a long-time crush on the Vicar of Ploverleigh, Dr. Daly (Richard Alan Holmes).
Once informed of Constance’s dotings, Dr. Daly feels that he is too old to fall in love, though he fondly remembers his romantic interests as a young man. The next scene shifts back to Alexis, alone with his betrothed, and he speaks about how romantic relationships often break down by class distinctions and superficialities. To remedy this, he tells his betrothed that he has summoned from London the sorcerer John Wellington Wells with his patent “love philtre,” so that whoever drinks it will fall in love. Although Alexis’ commission of Wells to dose couples with a love-potion has philanthropic intentions, the magic scheme misfires, re-assorting couples in aburd love-matches. By the end of the opera, lessons are learned by all, including the sorcerer himself.
Bergeret directed the opera with a light hand, and Lou Anne Gilleland’s quaint set complemented the airy mood. Brian Pesti’s lighting was carefully balanced between conveying the cheeriness of the village and the “congenial gloom of the bishopric.” Gail J. Wofford and Quinto Ott’s costumes were eclectically English, right down to the vicar’s starched collar and the ladies’ long petticoats and frocks.
If you go to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas for their first-rate patter songs, they are few and far between here. The musical numbers of Act 1 are better than those of Act 2. In fact, the most celebrated song of the evening, “My name is John Wellington Wells,” sung by Stephen O’Brien, arrives midway through Act 1 (“Oh! my name is John Wellington Wells,/ I’m a dealer in magic and spells …”). It’s too bad that Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t imbed an equivalent showstopper in Act 2. To have Wells get off to such a rollicking start so early in the opera, and not to have something of equal comic energy later on, seems a flaw in the opera. The full ensemble treatment was given for the Finales of both Act 1 and 2, giving double force to the maxim: Saving the best ‘til last.
On the evening I attended, Bergeret was in fine fettle. He milked the songs that could be milked, and made sure that Gilbertian wit played out with crispness and at the right tempo. Those who have followed the GASPers at the Peter Norton Symphony Space typically can see Bergeret on stage (there’s no orchestra pit at the Peter Norton Space), hammily waving his baton. But at this venue, Bergeret was invisible throughout the entire performance. Nonetheless, he had no problem making his presence known via the sheer liveliness of the performance.
Except for O’Brien’s John Wellington Wells and Holmes’ Dr. Daly, the performances were mostly serviceable. O’Brien’s Wells was intoxicating to watch, and when he left the stage, the performance all but lost its carbonation. Holmes’ Dr. Daly was less fizzy, but he made up for it with his hilarious (romantic) change of heart in Act 2.
The Sorcerer is Gilbert and Sullivan’s second full-length comic opera after Thespis (whose music has been lost) but is often overlooked for a number of reasons. It can’t claim the early fame of their 1875 miniature gem, Trial by Jury, doesn’t carry the world-wide success of H.M.S. Pinafore (that followed on the heels of The Sorcerer), and doesn’t have the spicy exotic flavor of The Mikado. However, Bergeret simply presented the 1877 work on its own terms here. And in spite of its occasional clunkiness and patches of static action, it levitated.
Although The Sorcerer is hardly considered one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best operas, Gilbert and Sullivan fans who wanted a deeper understanding of Gilbert and Sullivan’s art were given a rare opportunity here. This satire shows you types that would later develop into characters of richer comic dimensions. Here one can glimpse the Major Generals, the Lady Janes, the Mabels, the Don Alhambras in embryonic form. Most notably, it offers us one of their best comic characters in John Wellington Wells. First played by George Grossmith back in 1877, the funny part still is coveted by many a serious performer.
In its 38th season, Bergeret and his company have earned a reputation for performing the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with authority and a contemporary flair. Their mission is to bring alive the entire Gilbert and Sullivan’s canon, both the well-known masterpieces and the rarely-performed works. With The Sorcerer, Bergeret proved that a second-tier work can, if not be spun into operatic gold, ring true.
If you missed this show, take heart. There are a few more operettas in the wings for this season, plus their New Year Eve’s Champagne Gala performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space.
The Sorcerer (December 1st and 2nd)
Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, 524 W. 59th Street, Manhattan.
For more information on the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players and their upcoming 2013 season (including The Mikado, H.M.S Pinafore, The Yeomen of the Guard), visit http://www.nygasp.org