By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
Like the coming of spring, one thing you can count on to add a bounce to your step and put a smile on your face is the annual production of the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company, Inc. This year they produced a magnificent account of “Patience, or, Bunthorne’s Bride.”
“Patience” is about the power of fads. A group of women are madly in love first with one poet and then another and ignore the military men to whom they were once engaged. Patience, the title character, loves no one and her eventual discovery of what love means benefits everyone. They eventually find happiness with their first loves. Only the silly Bunthorne is left without a bride when the curtain falls.
Director Shane Valenzi created a charming account of the operetta. He maintained all of the original vim while gently updating some elements and the result was faithful to the original while fresh and compelling.
He was superbly aided in his efforts by costume designer Rachel Sypniewski. The women were given elaborate and fascinating black goth ensembles in the first act. They matched, yet each were individualized with different color accents and accessories. In the second act, each woman wore the same lovely halter evening gown, but in different colors and slightly different configurations of the back tie. It was a marvelous accomplishment in differentiation with strong basic configurations. And the women looked fantastic.
Sypniewski had the chorus of men decked out in bright red and yellow military uniforms. The poets looked romantic but wonderfully silly. And Patience had a simple, adorable frock extending to her knees, to highlight the fact that she was a simple milk maid.
Scenic designer Victoria Granacki created a pleasing unit set made up a courtyard with nice detailing. It left lots of room for amusing cavorting.
But, as it should be, it was the humor and bouncing music that reigned. Director Valenzi’s contemporary insertions were judiciously placed and very funny. When a rich member of the Dragoon Guards asks all who love him and wish to marry him to come forth, not only do the ladies go rushing to him, but a couple of the Guards spring forward too. When a trio of men want to practice the preening poses of the poets who have captured the attention of the women they love, they sport ridiculous leotards which enhance the humor. Particular emphasis should be given here to Dennis M. Kalup who played the Duke. He is not a small man and he did a riproariously funny schtick in a tight pink number.
Valenzi also took a risky move which paid off in a big way. As members of the Friday night audience were taking their seats in Mandel Hall, they were asked if they would like to take on a very small nonspeaking role. Those who agreed had their names put on a piece of paper and just before the overture the president of the company, Mark A. Johnson, took the stage and drew a name out of a hat. On opening night, the role of the solicitor was taken by Tom Campbell of Highland Park (which shows the extent of the organization’s fine reputation) and three times a member of the company came into the audience and then escorted him onto the stage where he had no idea what was to happen. As action took place all around him, he was game. His good nature made this a splendid little element that paid off well.
The singers were all enthusiastic and offered committed performances. Olivia Doig in the title role was sweet and effectively communicated naiveté and confusion.
Jeffrey Luksik (Bunthorne) and Brandon Sokol (Grosvenor) were hilarious as the self-absorbed, competing poets. (Their little fight with feather quill pens was adorable.) They, along with Doig, sang well and proved themselves to be fine comic actors.
Sara Stern was adept at woman-of-a-certain-age humor and not only had a firm and flexible voice but did a decent job at faking a cello performance.
The three main Dragoon Guards — Gabriel Di Gennaro (the Colonel), Colin Commager (the Major), and Kalup (the Duke) — all combined the right degree of military masculinity and male cluelessness in matters of the heart.
The three main rapturous maidens — Anna Caldwell Saini (Lady Angela), Katherine Petersen (Lady Ella), and Mikaela Sullivan (Lady Saphir) — all sang with heart and offered impassioned nuttiness.
Things got underway with a fun and frothy overture. Music director Matthew Sheppard led the University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra in a well-paced performance. The orchestra acquitted themselves well with some particularly lovely work from the winds. One of the ensemble’s violas also did double duty and served as the dramaturg of the production as well. This was Professor David Bevington, the world-renowned Shakespeare scholar who has played viola for the company for many years.
The men’s and women’s choruses offered fine sound, good blend, and executed some fancy moves through the course of the evening. The women got a big laugh when they were asked to put everything out of their minds and then proceeded to look lobotomized.
Since some of the music moves at a more than brisk pace, it was marvelous to have supertitles, a relatively recent and welcome addition to the company’s performances.
The audience reacted with sustained applause and I know that I went home humming some of the glorious music.
The Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company, Inc. has been presenting operettas since 1960 and show no sign of slowing down. That’s a great thing.