Do You Really Want to Have Some Fun?
Dale Gutzman’s Gilbert and Sullivan
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnival, lusty, and artistic acts
Of accidental brilliance, maverick genius;
Of hits put on by airships and hard work,
And, in this upshot, musical theatre
That does Milwaukee
So Colin Cabot paraphrased Hamlet’s Horatio, in describing the first 30 years of The Skylight Theatre. Twenty years later, The Skylight Opera has invited prodigal son Dale Gutzman to direct An Evening with Gilbert and Sullivan (May 28 - June 20 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre) returning to the material of its maiden performance a half-century past.
Gutzman, a prolific producer, director, actor and
playwright, is well known to Milwaukee
audiences. He’s presented shows at nearly every venue in town in a career which
has also seen him direct professionally in England,
Russia, Thailand and the Ukraine.
Currently on Wells Street, in the shadow of the
larger, and infinitely better funded Milwaukee Repertory Theater, he continues
to present controversial material at his Off the Wall Theatre, often to mixed
reviews, which doesn’t bother the workhorse showman. “Milwaukee audiences are particularly
conservative in their theater tastes,” he says, adding “My shows have always
been known for a kind of off-the-wall quality. I take risks in my work.”
Such risk-taking made Gutzman a natural fit for the
Skylight, where he directed 23 shows, including many he wrote, including The Bathtub Gin Revue, Beertown Burlesque and the original Holiday Punch, which in later years
became a yuletide favorite.
Then, abruptly, the phone stopped ringing. “A change
of policy at the theater brought in directors and talent from out of town,”
says Gutzman, “and I was not used for two decades. Nothing was ever explained
to me, so I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps I was considered too local for
Undeterred, Gutzman continued to produce shows
abroad and locally, including a three-year stint as resident playwright at the
Performing Arts Center (now Marcus
Center for the Performing
Arts). “I’ve admitted more often than I care to, that it always seemed to be
the only thing I could really do. I did teach for almost 20 years, but teaching
is in itself a kind of performance.”
However, when the idea of doing a Gilbert and
Sullivan revue for the 50th anniversary came up, Skylight artistic director
Bill Theisen knew who he wanted helming the project. “There was no question in
my mind that he was the right man for the job. My first performing experience
at the Skylight in 1981 was a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado directed by Dale.”
Theisen goes on to describe Gutzman as “one of the
most creative people that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. His
script for the show is very fresh, extremely funny and definitely in the spirit
of The Skylight.”
Despite his already heavy schedule, Gutzman says he
was “thrilled” when the Skylight approached him to return. “One of my dreams
before I retire was to be able to return to the Skylight to do another show.
The Skylight was a huge part of my life for many years, and I think I really
connected with the Skylight audience.”
Of the show, Gutzman explains, “I was free to do
anything I wanted to do, and they gave me no constraints or limitations except
that I was to use three performers. I decided to take the show in a different
direction from the original G and S revue upon which it was based.
show is an actual play within a revue setting. It takes place in Heaven and
Gilbert and Sullivan, who never got along in their lifetime, are faced with
being together for eternity. They use 22 of their songs to explore their
relationship and the times in which they lived. It explores how culture and
time affect artistic creation.”
In the waning hours of the 1950s, after an impromptu performance of Gilbert and Sullivan tunes by two church musicians, Sprague Vonier turned to his business partner Clair Richardson and asked, “Do you really want to have some fun? I’ll get these guys to put on a show in the empty space upstairs.” Fifty years and thousands of performances later, The Skylight continues to entertain Milwaukee audiences with every stripe of musical theatre. Gutzman’s comic sensibilities, coupled with the madcap material of Gilbert and Sullivan, are sure to keep the fun rolling.