By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
What: “Merrie England”
Where: Mandel Hall
When: Through Mar. 17
Tickets: 773-702-2787 or tickets.uchicago.edu
Since 1960 the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Co. Inc. has been regaling Hyde Park audiences with performances of the operettas by the duo enshrined in its name. Now 59 years since it first was created, the company has produced a Savoy opera not written by Gilbert and Sullivan. “Merrie England,” by composer Edward German and librettist Basil Hood, is the last great light opera ever produced by the D’Oyly Carte company, the firm that brought fame to W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.
“Merrie England” is tuneful and jolly as well as stuffed with a large cast of 16 named characters and a full chorus. Love is found, love is threatened, and love wins out. Our own neighborhood Gilbert and Sullivan group has once again done a great job.
The story opens with residents of Windsor, led by the May Queen, preparing for May Day celebrations. The May Queen urges her many suitors to kill Jill-All-Alone, a young woman who lives a solitary life in the forest but is known to royal forest Long Tom, who loves her. Before the mob can attack Jill-All-Alone, Sir Walter Raleigh intervenes to restore peace. Two actors from Shakespeare’s company add to the villagers’ distraction by preparing them to perform a play for Queen Elizabeth.
Bessie Throckmorton loses a love letter sent to her by Raleigh and it finds its way into the hands of the Earl of Essex, who hopes to use the letter in his own scheme to wed the virgin Queen. When he reveals the letter to the Queen, she sends Bessie to prison, orders Raleigh exiled, and condemns Jill-All-Alone to death. Further plotting results in freedom for all three of them and a lavish village wedding for Raleigh and Throckmorton.
As has been the case in the recent years, the cast is made up of talented amateurs, students, and young artists just embarking on a music career. Every one of them contributes to laughter and merriment, each bringing evident enthusiasm to the project.
Katherine Petersen and Steven Michael Patrick portray Throckmorton and Raleigh, who want to marry but fear the Queen’s displeasure. They are an attractive couple who work well together. Patrick has a pleasing, flexible tenor while Petersen is one of the best actresses on the stage, clearly conveying her love and worry but also her pluck.
Jeffrey Luksik and Alex Carey are Wilkins and Simkins, two actors who find Shakespeare lacking. Wilkins explains that music is needed in the theater and claims that “Hamlet” could be improved if when the Prince of Denmark in his famous soliloquy speaks of “a sea of troubles” this were to be followed by a sea shanty. Luksik is an amusing comic actor and can smartly race through a patter song. Carey is a stylish singer and splendid with physical comedy.
Jill-All-Alone is played with wistful intelligence and clever humor by Emma Sorensen, who makes a big splash with her mournful introductory number. She’s also deft with a hand puppet representing her constant companion. Aaron Petrovich as the forester Long Tom offers steadfast support to the woman he loves and sings with strength and clarity.
Dorian McCall’s Earl of Essex steals every scene he’s in. He has a rich baritone sound with subtle color and the interpretive skills to make the music laugh or cry as needed. He’s a great actor and has some campy dance moves that are both very slinky and terribly funny.
Sara Stern is indeed stern as she brings a truly regal bearing to Queen Elizabeth. And she rocks her two queenly costumes. In Act I she’s decked out in a lavish evening ensemble of floor-length gown, over the elbow gloves, around the shoulders fur, and a stunning, sparkling tiara. In the second act, it’s a jewel-colored suit in pinkish-red with a marvelous pill box hat. She makes her first entrance with a surprise cameo (I’m not giving away the surprise, but watch Essex — all in black — escorting the Queen’s non-speaking, special guest).
Mikaela Sullivan takes the important role of the May Queen, who often propels the story forward. She’s gorgeous in her strapless summer dress and brings just the right amount of juicy spite.
Big Ben, Long Tom’s brother and fellow forester, is played with bluff good will by Benjamin Burney. Katherine Dalin contributes exuberance as Kate and it is a pleasure to see Bob Green on stage as Jack. Green has been in every main stage production of the company since 1963.
The quartet of Windsor tradesmen, a butcher, a baker, a tailor, and a tinker, are wonderfully portrayed by Noah Friedlander, Jonathan Larson, Mary Nora Wolf, and Blake Lambert-Haak. They are appropriated fitted out and bring a little surprise: the tailor is written for a tenor, but is taken on with aplomb by sometime mezzo-soprano Wolf, who carries off the untraditional trouser role with ease.
The chorus is good sized and sounds great. They execute their many dance scenes well, particularly tricky with the smallish stage.
Matthew Sheppard leads the University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra, a student group, with flair. The music from the pit is perky and frolicsome, with the ensemble offering excellent support for the singers.
The operetta has several hummable, foot-tapping tunes that are appealing and memorable even on a first listen, and the story has the kind of silliness you expect from a Savoy operetta.
There are many little touches which enhance an already good show: an unexpected trombone solo by the butcher, representation of American’s two favorite pets on stage, sly visual jokes, a ridiculous “disguise” and so on. There is good fun in abundance in this production.
The only misstep is director Shane Valenzi’s choice of setting the story not in the time of Elizabeth I but instead in the time of Elizabeth II, sometime in the 1950s. I love a good update, and Valenzi’s new time setting in last year’s “Patience” was very well done. But here it falls flat.
First, the setting is so vanilla that the Windsor village woman are all decked out in vanilla colored costumes of no clear era. The men have slightly darker hues, often banana yellow. The forest scene is so generic it could be anywhere in the world with trees. The story is heavy with praise to the English, yet the surroundings never suggest England at all, save the clear and winning portrayal of Elizabeth II.
QE2 was married with children by the time she came to the throne in 1952, so any marriage plot makes no sense. There was a genuine marriage problem facing the Queen in the 1950s when her sister Princess Margaret wanted to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. No one languished in prison and Margaret could have married him but the conditions were such that in the end she chose not to. And the idea that any British monarch in the 20th century would order the death of a subject is laughable. QE2’s 1950s bear no resemblance to German and Hood’s story.
But no matter. The stage excitement, the music, the jokes, and all the special little touches this company is famous for ring true. This is a jolly operetta. It was performed 500 times in England in 1952, but it is rarely produced in the U.S. Don’t miss what could be your only chance in donkey’s years to see this effervescent, charming show.