May 13 was Arthur Sullivan’s 169th birthday, so there was free champagne in the lobby at intermission. The singing was good, the dancing considerably better. As one of New York’s innumerable and incurable Gilbert & Sullivan addicts, I probably haven’t any right to complain. So I’ll just repeat what that ineffably cranky wit, William Schwenk Gilbert, said to a star actor after his overblown performance of Hamlet: “It was funny without being vulgar.”
That, regrettably, is the kindest remark I can muster about choreographer Francis Patrelle’s GILBERT & SULLIVAN, The Ballet!, which his company, Dances Patrelle, presented for four performances in the cozy basement theater customarily occupied by Dicapo Opera. Sadly, Patrelle’s work wasn’t even as funny as it could be: Its notion of humor was apparently derived from the self-conscious attitudinizing that poisons so many productions of G&S.
The 12 comic operas with which Gilbert and Sullivan revolutionized musical theater are comic, granted, but they’re not arch. The raised-eyebrow mannerisms that have accrued to their surface, thanks to decades of doting devotees who think “Victorian” automatically equals “adorably quaint,” rebuke both Gilbert’s sardonic spirit and the sly, half-parodistic playfulness with which Sullivan animated it. The genius duo’s brand of comedy demands a directness of tone and a lightness of touch that always proceed from a firm grasp of reality.
Reality, including the historical reality of G&S themselves, never showed itself in Patrelle’s two-act opus, on a scenario by himself and Justin Allen. Vaguely mimed rehearsal-audition scenes involving the two authors and their producer, Richard d’Oyly Carte, alternated with potted dance versions of said works, the team’s three most famous: Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, and H.M.S. Pinafore (out of chronological order, though that’s a minor quibble).
Patrelle’s twee approach seemed to limit his choreographic imagination to about six steps; he cluttered almost every number, including dramatic sung solos, with ensemble busy-busy. A few ideas worked: Major-General Stanley riding herd on his daughters to numbers from Pirates, Ko-Ko wooing Katisha to a melding of their back-to-back Mikado solos. But too often the choreography looked stale as composition and dramatically inert, too coyly conscious of Gilbert’s words to heed the elegant shapes of Sullivan’s music.
Still, the five principals—Therese Miyoshi Wendler, Julie Voshell, Jesse Marks, Alexander Brady, and John-Mark Owen—danced impressively; loose-limbed Brady and handsome, dashing Marks were standouts. But those of us who don’t view G&S as posturing without substance felt severely modified rapture.