I left my heart in the Tower of London: “The Yeoman of the Guard” at Mandel Hall

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What:  “The Yeoman of the Guard”

Where: Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St.

When: Through Sun., Mar. 15

Phone: 773-702-2787

Web: ticketsweb.uchicago.edu

Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeoman of the Guard,” reckoned by both its creators as their best collaboration, opened last night at Mandel Hall and continues with two more performances: tonight at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.

Hyde Park’s own Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company Inc. (G&SOCI), which has been offering productions since 1960 by operetta’s most famous duo, is presenting “Yeoman,” with net proceeds benefiting the University of Chicago’s Department of Music.

The story in barest form is that of a man sentenced to death who marries a complete stranger before his scheduled execution. He escapes from the Tower of London and, while disguised, woos and wins the love of the woman he has already married.

Yeoman” has a special place in the G&S canon because it is darker than the other works, has the saddest ending and does not rely on topsy-turvy plot devices. In fact, the basic plot is not even original to Gilbert but is the same as “Maritana,” a grand opera by William Vincent Wallace.

The alternate title of the work is “The Merryman and His Maid,” and it is the strolling jester headlined here, Jack Point, who loses the love of his life to the prisoner in the tower and thereby gives the work its heart. The production at Mandel Hall owes much of its success to Daniel Berry as Jack.

Multi-talented Berry sings with clarity of tone and diction, as well as strong projection and apt phrasing. He has a naturalness with text whether singing or speaking. The patter songs, which have tripped up innumerable singers since the operetta premiered in 1888, are dispatched with aplomb. Berry not only has nimble dance moves, but uses his entire body effectively even when simply taking a step across the stage. You will not forget his final appearance just before the curtain falls; it is the most heart-breaking moment in all of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Berry does it justice.

It was a very pleasant surprise to learn that bass-baritone David Govertsen is in the cast – it says something important about how G&SOCI has worked steadily to improve their productions. Chicago opera fans will know that Govertsen is an alum of Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center and his most recent appearance at Lyric was as the majordomo in last autumn’s “Cappricio” starring Renee Fleming. He was also featured in the 2014 double-bill of “The Emperor of Atlantis” and “The Clever One” at Chicago Opera Theater.

Govertsen portrays Sir Richard Cholmondeley, the Lieutenant of the Tower – interestingly, the only character in the G&S operettas that is clearly based on an historical figure. Like Berry, Govertsen carries with him a complete portfolio of talents. He brings authority and gravitas to Cholmondeley and has a masculine and meaty sound that stands up to everything the orchestra offers. After the performance, I asked him why he chose to sing in a neighborhood production. He had a good-natured laugh before replying, “Because it’s Gilbert and Sullivan!” Govertsen also praised Mandel Hall, describing it as a “lovely place to sing.”

Another Chicago-area veteran in the cast is baritone Brad Jungwirth, who quickly grabbed the attention of the opening night audience with his multi-faceted portrayal of head jailer and assistant tormentor Wilfred Shadbolt. Sporting a shaved head and decked out in kinky black leather with a belt bearing tools of the most dubious variety, Jungwirth’s extroverted Shadbolt shows the dark and twisted side of the character as well as an under-layer both sweet and loveable. He seems flummoxed at times during the fastest tempi, but his comic successes are many and marvelous.

Anna Caldwell is energetic and convincing as Elsie, and except when a wobble creeps into her voice, she has splendid sound. Samantha Attaguile’s singing as Pheobe is very pretty, but her voice is too small for Mandel Hall. 

G&SOCI stalwart Bob Green has appeared with the company in every one of their main stage productions since 1963. His funniest moment this year is as a yeoman on duty who sees nothing, even when there’s action just inches from his eyes.

It’s impossible to mention the entire cast, but everyone brings something to the production.

The University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra, led by Matthew Sheppard, faces a lot of hard work in a score many consider to be the best of all of Sullivan’s collaborations with Gilbert. They struggle from time to time, yet it is impossible not to commend them for some gorgeous passages, notably in the strings, as well as their dexterity in rapid sections.

The staging is uneven, but at its best it significantly adds to the laughs. Stage director Shane Valenzi’s biggest misstep is to reprise the cock and bull song (“Hereupon we’re both agreed”) three times, driving it deep into the ground by the fourth go round. And with the production running nearly three hours, it’s hard to imagine his justification.

These faults in “Yeoman of the Guard” amount to mere quibbles. Overall it is witty, engaging, true to the artists who wrote it and very good fun. I highly recommend it.

Photo: David Govertsen, Anna Caldwell and Daniel Berry sing “How Say You, Maiden” in the roles of the Lieutenant, Elsie Maynard, and Jack Point during Act I of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Yeoman of the Guard” during dress rehearsals at Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St., Thursday. Photo by Marc Monaghan