An operetta from the conservative Victorian Age that satirizes feminism and women’s education and sets up a battle between the sexes that the men are destined to win is not exactly a winning formula for most 2020 audiences. But the operetta is by the perennially loved W.S. Gilbert (libretto) and Albert Sullivan (music); and there are many, modern aficionados of the famed pair who will forgive them of any dated satirical targets in order to hear and enjoy their music and rapid-fire, rhymed lyrics.
Even with a score that often soars and with a number of songs that are richly comical and beautifully conceived, the 1884 premiering Princess Ida is one of the lesser-produced operettas among the creative duo’s fourteen for such reasons as the above-mentioned subject matter and its rather-long length (three acts, nearly three hours with intermissions). Lamplighters Music Theatre’s Barbara Heroux decided in 1989 to tackle at least some aspects of the subject matter by adapting the original to make its love story more sincere and truthful and less of male might prevailing in order to subdue the reluctant female who has ventured into Victorian, no-no land by being too independent, intelligent, and interesting. The company is currently reviving that adaptation with Barbara Heroux once again at the creative helm as director – an adaptation that won in 1995 multiple awards at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England.
This 2020 version of Princess Ida is touring the Bay Area for three weekends and boasts a large, well-voiced cast of near forty and an exceptionally impressive orchestra of twenty (under music direction of Baker A. Peeples and concert master of Pamela Faw). And while the production at times wanes in the electrifying energy and excitement that often permeates Lamplighters’ G&S operettas – particularly losing oomph in the third act and its ho-hum finale – there is much to savor in many of the arias, duets, and trios as the story unfolds of a promised, marital union of royals where one half has decided she would instead prefer leading a life totally sans males!
Two kings, Hildebrand and Gama, have twenty years prior promised that one-year-old Princess Ida and two-year-old Prince Hilarion will one day marry; and that day has finally arrived. All is aflutter at Castle Hildebrand as court members and royals await the promised arrival of King Gama and the bride-to-be. However, it turns out Princess Ida has sworn off men entirely and is now the young head mistress of an all-women’s university.
When the arriving Gama and his sons come empty-handed, King Hildebrand is infuriated. His son, Prince Hilarion, is not so upset and is intrigued enough that he convinces two friends, Cyril and Florian, to go with him to this haven of one hundred young women in order to work their manly charm – something the two pals with their testosterone juices now clearly flowing are quite eager to do. In the meantime, King Hildebrand decides to hold his royal visitors in custody until his son returns safely with his bride.
Needless to say, Gilbert has a heyday in his libretto with three young men sneaking into a cloistered haven of serious-minded young women who can get expelled from the all-women’s cloister even for playing chess. (After all the game requires ‘chess men’ who ‘mate’ during the course of play!) Like in Shakespeare, there is cross-dressing to come, discoveries aplenty, unlikely alliances between the invaders and the female students – after all, Cyril and Florian need eventual wives – and a certain Princess who is adamant not to budge in her decision to remain single (until the plot’s flimsy twists and turns as well as the doting eyes and possible sacrifice of a certain Prince begin to sway her otherwise).
Those eyes of Prince Hilarion are saucer-sized and frozen in their stare when we first meet him. Robert Vann introduces us to his attractive and impressive tenor voice as the Prince sings in some mixture of anticipation and anxiety of the baby bride that today he will finally meet (“Ida was a twelvemonth old”). This Prince will continue to impress us with his fine vocals, and those eyes will not be able to unfix their lovesick stare once he meets the Princess as he is now disguised as a girl seeking an education. His gaze is a look that the Princess clearly notices from a ‘girl’ that she is somehow drawn to, with the Princess several time comically and silently giving looks that are easily interpreted by us as an amused audience as “Why am I having this strange feeling inside me for this new ‘girl’?”
The target of the Prince’s immediate love is portrayed as stalwartly strong of opinion, courage, strength, and intellect. The brilliantly impressive soprano voice that Jennifer Ashworth brings to her Princess Ida reinforces all those qualities. We first hear her in an early Act Two prayer to Minerva, seeking the goddess’ aid as the Princess leads her young women into their quest for enlightenment. Immediately, Jennifer Ashworth’s aria is infused with notes that effortlessly rise one after the other to heavenly heights and once there, hover ever so lightly and beautifully. Each time her Princess sings, she gives full justice and more to the oft-challenging, vocal assignments that Albert Sullivan has bestowed upon the role. She sings and acts with fierce pride and a certain stubbornness, as is particularly seen at the end of Act Two as the Princess sings of the “defiance thus I hurl … we fearlessly unfurl. ” At this point, the Princess prepares to lead an army of her education-bound maidens into battle against King Hildebrand’s invading army that have come to rescue the now-discovered and now-imprisoned Prince and his pals.
Jennifer Ashworth is the production’s true star in every respect, singing with much depth and variety of interpretation. The only fault I can find is that while she brings so much to the part vocally, there is a bit of a credibility issue in that the actress is clearly not twenty-one and when paired with the younger Prince, appears to be his elder in all respects. What is thus missing is a believable magnetic attraction between the two, even at the operetta’s marital climax.
Ron Houk (baritone) and Jonathan Potter (tenor) play the Prince’s gallivanting friends, Florian and Cyril respectively, with each bringing fine voices that get a work-out several times in comic trios with the Prince where the lyrics require alacritous execution. Jonathan Potter’s Cyril is particularly hilarious as he increasingly cannot contain his manly manners of attraction within the confines of his feminine robes.
Cyril and Florian find out that two of the female scholars are in fact quickly questioning their pledge of no-men. Psyche and Melissa find that Cyril and Florian (respectively) cause them to put their books aside long enough to reciprocate the flirting they are receiving. Rose Frazier is the Professor of Humanities, Lady Psyche, who hilariously uses her fine soprano voice to satirize Darwinian theories (“A lady fair, of lineage high”), while her amused brother Florian acts out the evolution of an ape into “a man, however well-behaved, at best in only a monkey shaved.” As Melissa, Camilla Leonard brings a sparkling quality to both her singing and the young girl’s radiant personality.
Melissa is also clever enough to recruit her ambitious mother, Lady Blanche, to help in the Prince’s love quest of Princess Ida, thus opening up the university leadership position for the older woman who has already voiced in song the belief she is the rightful and more deserving holder of the position. As Lady Blanche, Elena Cowen comes close to stealing the show several times with comedic expressions that exaggerate wonderfully the Professor’s clawing for the university’s top position as well as her manner of superiority that she flaunts as Professor of Abstract Science, often speaking in near gibberish.
But the greatest single source of laughs comes from Princess Ida’s father, King Gama, a bent-over, hobbling curmudgeon who looks and acts something between a court jester wearing a crown and the character Fagin from Oliver. As King Gama, Charles Martin limps around snarling and frowning, fully entertaining us with his comic baritone renditions and particularly amusing us when at one point the grouchy King complains of being treated too well as a prisoner of King Hildebrand, grousing in song, “Isn’t your life extremely flat, with nothing whatever to grumble at.”
The King’s three sons – Arac (Robby Stafford), Guron (Pete Shoemaker), and Scynthius (Sam Rabinowitz) – also have delicious chances to be fools on stage, bringing their bass and baritone vocals to bear when first we meet them, singing “We are warriors three” as they declare as princes “politics … are not our bent” and “on the whole we are not intelligent.” Much later, the three stooges first de-frock with smelly bluster all their soldier armor in an amusing number (“This helmut, I suppose”) before providing the climatic impetus for Princess Ida suddenly to open her eyes to her beating heart and to understand that she really loves the Prince who is about to have his own heart pierced by one of her brother’s sword.
When this chorus rings forth, it is most impressive in the several numbers that feature only women’s voices and their close-knit, rolling harmonies. In general, the women of this cast overall are easier than the men to understand as they clip off Gilbert’s challenging lyrics; and they more often than not have the power and volume to be heard clearly in a production where no principals are miked. (That is particularly an issue for William Neely’s King Hildebrand, with the actor bringing a fine-enough voice but one too often lacking the power of volume to project the King’s words.)
Where all chorus numbers are least impressive is in the production’s choreography. Overall, there is a lot of lined-up swaying and some small-group circling and not a lot else memorable.
What is noteworthy are the costumes designed the late John Gilkerson and updated by Miriam R. Lewis – a fabulous array of colors that in their medieval, courtly attire, are made all the more outstanding through the magic of Kerry Rider-Kuhn’s host of wigs and David Kirby’s make-up artistry. The production’s gigantic, cut-out scenic pieces are like the pop-ups of a children’s storybook (originally designed by John Gilkerson with additional design by Peter Crompton) and are highlighted with flair through the lighting design of Brittany Mellerson. Many of the roaming chorus members sport items that offer some glimpses into their unique personas, with an astrologer’s sextant being just one of many properties designed meticulously and often comically by Frances Silcox.
Princess Ida is neither Gilbert and Sullivan at their finest nor in this production, Lamplighters at its absolute best. However, this Princess Ida is overall enjoyable and a fine afternoon or evening’s entertainment for anyone who is a fan of the earliest forms of today’s musical theatre comedies by the master creators of the genre, Gilbert and Sullivan.
Rating: 3.5 E
Princess Ida for two upcoming weekends at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, February 8-9; and at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, February 22-23. Tickets for all performance and venues are available at http://lamplighters.org.
Photos by Lucas Buxman