THE YEOMAN OF THE GUARD, an opera set in 16th-century England, almost unimagined by playwright W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, tells the grand tale of Colonel Fairfax, a man of means, who is falsely charged with sorcery by a relative who hopes to inherit the dandy bachelor’s estate. Stripped of his lavish garb, Fairfax is marched to a dank cell in the Tower of London until his impending execution that day. With the clear time crunch and a strong sense of self-preservation, he accepts aid from Sergeant Meryll, a man whom he saved twice from a dubious end, Meryll’s son Leonard, a newly appointed yeoman, and daughter Phoebe, an admiring maiden, by concealing his true identity, dressing as a beefeater, a guard of the Tower.
YEOMAN, performed by Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Chester County under the direction of Bob Binkley, music director and conductor Florrie Marks and producers Daniel K. Williams and George Bourrie, is a lavish, big-set production staged at The Madeleine Wing Adler Theatre, Swope Music Building, on the campus of West Chester University. The set, a modified version of the original 1881 multi-level fortress constructed at The Savoy Theatre in the Strand (the entertainment district in the West End of London) showcases the authors’ penchant for big-scale, up-tempo operettas, with the intimate, darker storytelling albeit lies, misdirection, love found and lost. Add to the conundrum an execution foiled, couple swapping, frivolity, broken promises and “Yeoman” takes its audience on a veritable roller coaster ride.
The show opens with Sergeant Meryll’s daughter, Phoebe, proclaiming her love for Wilfred Shadbolt, the head jailor and assistant tormentor at the Tower of London. The fickle Phoebe spots Colonel Fairfax and suddenly redirects a romantic target toward the unwelcomed suitor. Dame Caruthers announces that Fairfax is being moved to Cold Harbour Tower to await his death when Phoebe’s brother Leonard Meryll arrives for duty and he, his father and sister devise a plan to break Fairfax out of prison. Leonard will secretly leave the Tower, Phoebe will distract jailor Shadbolt, take his keys, and dad Meryll will release Fairfax dressed as “Leonard.” Now unofficially free, Fairfax asks Lieutenant Cholmondeley to provide him with a bride (so that any fortune goes to the new wife), and stays out of the hands of his rival relative. Two married, strolling street players, Elsie Maynard and Jack Point, arrive to entertain the throngs. Upon discovery that she is unmarried, Point encourages her to accept the Lieutenant’s proposition to marry Fairfax. Pandemonium and an announcement that Fairfax has escaped leads Elsie to faint. Unable to find Fairfax (in plain sight under the guise of “Leonard”) Jack has regrets about pawning off his wife to another man. A recently unemployed Wilfred, sadly asks Point to teach him the art of the jester. Point agrees, if the out-of-work jailor will state that he killed Fairfax. As “Leonard” Fairfax sets out to woo Elsie, but already married, she rebuffs him. Just as he is ready to tell her the truth of his identity gunshots ring out in the square. Wilfred and Point run in. Point substantiates that Fairfax was indeed shot in the head and the people cheer. Elsie thinking she is a widow accepts “Leonard”, the two retreat, leaving Point and Phoebe in despair. Wilfred happens on the crying lass and confesses the ruse. He proposes to remain silent in exchange for Phoebe’s hand in matrimony. When Elsie finds out that “Leonard” is, in fact, Colonel Fairfax, all is well, and joy accentuates the anguish of Jack Point, who loses his wife and his will to live.
The canon score moves nicely, but it became distracting when key performers such as veteran G & S’s Derek Hess as Jack Point spent, perhaps unawares, minutes at a time eyeing his musical leader. Otherwise, he was ideally cast in the role of the wayward, animated jester. He was particularly enjoyable to watch because he made a conscious decision not to “overplay” the foppish comedian. His physical and vocal mannerisms were uncannily reminiscent of a well-known, big eyed, jokester seen on the screen, in comedy skits, and even headlining a band. Hess at one point speaks silently to his bauble (mock scepter) – a funny side bit.
Allison Deratzian is the real juggler here, as Phoebe Meryll. Deratzian has the distinct job of bridging the other characters in the opera. Her role demands a strong singer and actor, and though diminutive in stature, she delivers on the task at hand. Hungarian-born Gabor Kari gives a standout performance with his chameleon-like characterization of the suave, confident Colonel Fairfax. He seamlessly transforms from prison ward to royal guard. Theresa Swartz, with an uplifting, lilting voice, imbues the youthfulness originally intended by Gilbert for teen street minstrel Elsie Maynard. Dancing ability was limiting and disconcerting, but the choreography was period correct and steered clear of complexity for the benefit of the performers. Jeffrey Grant was electric as head jailor and assistant tormentor Wilfred Shadbolt. This, his third time cast in this role, Grant was physical, engaging and receives kudos for establishing great connections with his co-stars. Julie C. May’s portrayal of Dame Carruthers was elegant, whimsical, and in Act II she coaxes giggles and smiles from patrons with “Rapture, rapture”, accompanied by Dave Silberstein as the tall and debonair Sergeant Meryll. May delivers each song with laser-like precision.
Fred Dittmann has a notable presence as Sir Richard Cholmondeley, and Joshua Holmes plays the loving brother to Phoebe, Leonard Meryll. Others include: Royal McGeorge, Jr. (First Yeoman), Robert Kinney (Second Yeoman), Bruce Monroe (First Citizen), Bill Buckman (Second Citizen), and Jessica Yothers (Kate) rounded out the dramatis personae, along with Yeomen: George Bourrie, Willy Dahms, Ken McIntosh, Douglas Smith, and the Rabble: Janet Ables, Susan Best, Laura Carrasco, Alison Flannery, Jennifer Williams Heller, Tirzah Howlett, Chris Knowlton, Rob Knowlton, Marie Maguire, Martha Smylie, Sigal Strauss , and Brett Heller as The Headsman.
The ensemble of veteran singers overcame some challenges with simple choreography and the leads had to deal with “A Chorus Line” blocking, but movement was generally fluid.
Costumes varied in quality, as did hemlines, but overall, the palette of the production was respectable with wonderful detail paid to the beefeaters, the leading ladies gowns and men’s period pieces, and accessories. The jester outfits were not always motley, but colorful and playful just the same.
– Opening night, Jack the Ripper committed a double murder. Four days earlier theatre goers were in shock and awe by pavement artists’ graphic illustrations of the account.
– Wilhelm I dies of throat cancer and is succeeded by Queen Victoria’s grandson, Kaiser Bill, who had an intimate dalliance with “The Yeoman Of The Guard” composer Arthur Sullivan.
– T S Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, Irving Berlin and T E Lawrence were born that year.
THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD
Written By W. S. Gilbert
Composed by Arthur Sullivan
January 29 – February 1, 2015
The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Chester County
The Madeleine Wing Adler Theatre
Swope Music Building
West Chester University
West Chester, PA