Monday, May 31, 2010

An Evening In The Afterlife With The Skylight

Dale Gutzmans Tribute To The Skylight, Gilbert and Sullivan

By Russ Bickerstaff
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With a prolific history spanning 25 years and a great many works of musical theatre, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan have their place in theatre history firmly established. Countless productions of The Pirates of Panzance, The H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado have involved the work of a multitude of theatre practitioners in the nearly 140 years since their first show first debuted. The idea that the two of them would meet again to hang out in the after life is very seductive. Dale Gutzman uses that idea as the central premise for his musical revue An Evening With Gilbert And SullivanThe Skylight Opera Theatre’s debut of the revue opened this past weekend. An enjoyably brisk evening of old classics from the pair appears onstage at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre now through June 20th.

As the show opens, we see a cozy, little late 19th/ early 20th century period set. There’s a piano, a pair of chairs and a few other things. Music Director Jeff Schaetzke plays an afterlife servant named Meadows. His first task is to play a gramophone record on an old Victrola-looking device. Amidst pops and clicks, the pre-recorded voice of playwright/director Dale Gutzman sets the mood with a classy variation on the traditional opening curtain speech. 

The first to arrive after the curtain speech is Gary Briggle as composer Arthur Sullivan. After a few establishing bits of dialogue and a pair of songs, John R. Muriello shows-up in the role of librettist W.S. Gilbert. The two promptly perform a speedy rendition Here’s a How-De-Do from the Mikado. The two men begin to get along the way long-time collaborators might if they were to suddenly find themselves after death with the rest of eternity together. Naturally, they fight. Muriello is playfully irreverent as Gilbert—a man who is seen here as quite eager to thumb his nose at authority. He’s paired-off against a  comparatively conservative Sullivan, played with charm and poise by Gary Briggle.Briggle and Muriello have a rapport together that is more than solid enough to hold the production together, but both have some really affecting moments alone as well.  

Dale Gutzman has pieced together a revue that paces itself pretty well. Songs shift from the exceedingly familiar to the somewhat less so and back again with a brisk rhythm. Early on, there’s a feisty energy. There’s a fun, little dueling medley as Briggle performs Modern Major General and Muriello does When I Good Friends Was Called To The Bar. The pairing of the two songs is one of the more memorable musical bits in the program. After a while, things settle-down and begin to get wistful again before intermission with performances of I Have A Song To Sing and Poor Wand’ring One.

Things return from intermission as the afterlife servant played by Schaetzke begins to assert a charming personality while the other two are away at the top of the act. That Briggle and Muriello are able to hold the audience’s attentions through the rest of the second act has a lot to do with the helpful aid of Schloetzke’s charm at the piano. Much of Gutzman’s work is achieved simply by giving the premise room to breathe and letting the characters speak through some of the music they’d written together. Gutzman seems to have suppressed the urge to add too much extraneous plot into the revue, simply allowing it to all play out 

The show closes-out with a quaint tribute to the Skylight in the context of the plot as the pair are able to look into the distance and see their legacy extend into the 20th century and a decades-old Skylight rehearsal of The Pirates of Penzance directed by Clair Richardson. Reverent without being unrealistic, the closing bits acknowledge the Skylight and Milwaukee with a humble sense of humor the gains some momentum as the show reaches a satisfying grand finally medley complete with contemporary pop cultural references.

The dialogue spoken here can feel a bit overly expository at times, but it helps to firmly establish the characters and who they are. Those in the audience not as familiar with G&S will have no difficulty following the conversation. Those exceedingly familiar with the work and lives of the pair may be satisfied to simply see two really good actors playing the two legends with heart and compassion. In places, the script is actually quite good—occasionally achieving that perfect balance between Gutzman’s own writing style, naturalistic conversation and what sounds like historically accurate dialogue. 

The Skylight has played the end of its 50th anniversary season quite well here. It attempts to attract a newer, younger audience to the stage with a big, flashy production of RENT on its main stage as it stages something that would appeal a bit more to its more established audience base in an intimate space across the hall. This gives old friends of the comapany an opportunity to reflect on its past with a theatrical approximation of a couple of the guys who helped to make it what it was. Doing so in the intimate space of the Skylight's studio theatre gives the affair an air of refinement. If the Skylight can continue to maintain its base while expanding into the type of fare that will attract a new audience, the Skylight will be entering its next half century on the right foot.

The Skylight Opera Theatre’s An Evening With Gilbert and Sullivan runs through June 20th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre.

Writer/Director Dale Guzman will soon have to revues running concurrently on different stages in the theatre district. Gutzman celebrates 10 years of his Off The Wall Theatre Company with his retrospective musical revue A Perfect 10. Founder/Artistic Director Gutzman and company pay musical tribute to a decade of performances in the tiny space across the street from the Pabst. Off The Wall’s A Perfect 10 runs June 10th – 20th.

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