If you haven’t been to the quaint artist community that is Arden, DE, it’s absolutely worth the visit. Steeped in tradition, The Ardensingers troupe has been performing Gilbert & Sullivan musicals for over 60 years in the historic Arden Gild Hall. A type of comic opera popularized in Victorian England known as a Savoy Opera, this work veers from the typical happy-marriages- ending as the show concludes with two reluctant engagements and a broken-hearted (and potentially suicidal?) main character. Though the plot does stray from typical conventions of the day, the book contains a great deal of trademark puns, one-liners and hearty satire like only Gilbert and Sullivan can deliver. I’ve always been a supporter of the duo insomuch as having watched THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE ad nauseum as a child, but as this differs greatly from typical G& S form, I’m not at all ashamed to say I had to look up the word “Yeomen.”
THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD act as bodyguards for the sovereignty (think: beefeaters) and have gathered at the Tower of London in preparation for execution of the prisoner, Colonel Fairfax. The plot is exceedingly complex but generally focuses on the wrongful accusation of the aforementioned Fairfax, played by an almost Jean ValJean-esque Jay Anstee. When it is revealed that he is to be beheaded, the daughter of a Yeoman and admirer of Fairfax’s, Phoebe Meryll, (the beautiful Paula Gonzalez) devises a plan with her father (Richard Brenner) and brother (Dan Williams). The trio plan to sneak Colonel Fairfax out of the prison, disguised as Phoebe’s brother, Leonard. Phoebe is able to easily manipulate and retrieve the keys from the Quasimodo-esque jailer Wilfred Shadbolt, who fancies her (played by the larger-than-life Jeff Grant). Before this, Fairfax, believing he only has hours left, decides he should get married so his wealth will get passed on to someone outside of his family. In the meantime, the traveling players Jack Point the strolling jester (Stephen Green) and the object of his affections, a gypsy-esque maiden named Elsie (Mary Punshon) roll into town to perform. Desperate for money, Elsie dons a blindfold and marries Fairfax. Strangely enough, despite charming Phoebe’s wooing of Fairfax, Elsie ends up falling in love with him and later the two are wed, as Phoebe ends up unhappily wed to Wilfred the jailer and her father to the House Keeper of the Towers, Dame Caruthers (played by Martha Smylie). The audience is left with three almost bittersweet nuptials as Jack Point stares longingly at his beloved Elsie, now married to Colonel Fairfax.
The plot lines are admittedly complex and, at times hard to follow, but the fine orchestration by the 21-piece orchestra manages to lift the piece along in a lively manner and remind the audience why Gilbert and Sullivan have remained such staples in the musical theatre canon. Truly, this troupe is to be commended for the sheer ambition of this production: elaborate beefeater costumes, fine orchestration, many stellar operatic voices (those of Jay Anstee and Mary Punshon among them) and a beautiful traditionally painted set- a static castle backdrop- nestled in the intimate, wood-flanked stage of the Gild Hall. Kudos, too, to Director Julie C. May for her direction of this cast of 33+ plus, including multiple local children. Making use of picturesque staging involving the full ensemble, May also makes clever use of the playing space, utilizing a secret stage right panel as the dungeon-like jail from which the prisoner emerges. Musically directed by Bob Binkley, the orchestration was clear and on-point throughout. There were times, however, when it was difficult to hear the performers over the orchestra as the actors were not mic’d.
Stand-out performances included that of Stephen Green, the strolling jester, who experiences perhaps the most emotional arc of the show. He carried the part beautifully with his lithe steps and quick wit. The call and response number “I Have a Song to Sing, O!” that he sings with Elsie (Mary Punshon) is a particular favorite as the two performers rouse the bustling crowd with their street performances and the audience is transported back to the 16th century Tower Green along with them.
Moral of the story: It was absolutely worth the trip to artsy Arden to stroll back in time for this less-performed work of Gilbert and Sullivan. If there was ever an ideal place to stage the show, the Old English-feel of the Arden Gild Hall is the perfect venue for this transport.
THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD
W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Julie C. May
Musical Direction by Bob Binkley
April 26 – May 4, 2013
Arden Gild Hall
2126 The Highway