Founded in 1963 and named for London’s Savoy Theatre, the Durham Savoyards, Ltd. have achieved the commendable task of staging the entirety of Gilbert & Sullivan’s canon, except the apocryphal Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old, whose score had been long lost. A new score, 12 years in the making, has been delivered by Triangle actor and composer Alan Riley Jones for the Durham Savoyards’ Oct. 12-15 world premiere of Thespis, performed in tandem with Trial by Jury.
In 1992, with only two of Sir Arthur S. Sullivan’s original songs surviving (plus a five-movement ballet that was justifiably scrapped), Jones commenced to setting 13 other songs to music. Many people, composers included, would likely call this enterprise a fool’s errand. One must create original music that sounds like a Sullivan score, that does not copy an existing Sullivan score (or any other composer for that matter), and that suitably fits W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics, serves story and character (of which there are 40), is realistically performable, and balances the comedy, magic, and romance of the story. Thomas Zachary Shepard fashioned a well-received version in 2008, but I find most of Jones’ score just as fitting.
Since his score’s completion, Jones has been orchestrating his score — assigning every one of the 23-instrument orchestra its proper notes. Now, 25 years after Jones was first inspired to set Gilbert’s libretto (script and lyrics) to music, The Durham Savoyards hosts the world premiere of Jones’ completed orchestration at East Chapel Hill High School.
The plot is, as with most Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, farfetched. As the deities of a crumbling Mount Olympus bemoan their old age, a troupe of actors, led by the clownish Thespis (Steve Dobbins) stumble upon the mountain. After some unrelated farcical scenes about marriage, the gods and the thespians decide to switch places. The gods will spend some time on Earth, while the actors give ruling the universe a try. Cue silliness and topsy-turvydom.
Jones’ score hits the old Gilbert & Sullivan benchmarks. Patter song? Check. “I Once Knew a Chap” is reminiscent of the rapid-fire “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from The Pirates of Penzance. Jaunty melodies? Check. “You’re Diana, I’m Apollo” bounces along like “There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast” from The Mikado. Mystery and suspense? Check. “Oh Rage and Fury!” echoes the minor chords and booming pitches in “The Incantation” from The Sorcerer.
Jones, who conducted the orchestra on Thursday night, fought hard to keep his singers on beat. On many occasions, the cast could either not hear the monitors or not see maestro, or a combination of both. I predict this will be remedied by their second showing. The cast overall are commendable vocalists, and the ensemble’s harmonies blend seamlessly.
A couple of leads, Apollo in particular, need a mic change (or to eschew it altogether) due to its unbearable buzz. This orchestra is the best that I’ve heard assembled by any community theater in the area — particularly the horns section, amply used in the orchestration. Local producers should look to music directors Jones and Jackson Cooper for recommendations on pit members.
As good as their playing was, it was often hard to hear the orchestra over sound designer Brandon Dale’s blaring microphones. I would recommend either uncovering the pit entirely or turning down the mics and bringing the actors further downstage.
Everyone in the room is doing stellar work that deserves to be heard well. Mind you, balancing live singing and live orchestra is one of the biggest challenges in theater; and this is not the Durham Savoyards’ usual venue. I have heard worse mixing from companies with far greater technical resources than this one.
Director, choreographer, and scenic designer Derrick Ivey’s wide-open set — reminiscent of a Greek amphitheatre — was simple and functional, with scope added by mountain-range backdrop, thanks to scenic artist Charles Guidry. Harmonious lighting by designer Andy Parks rarely distracted, save for a couple of abrupt shifts in brightness.
Costumes designed by Karen Guidry, with some loans from Durham’s Young People’s Performing Company, were often cartoonish, but that matches the Looney Tunes-style wackiness of Gilbert’s characters. Hair and makeup by Pam Guidry-Vollers follows suit.
One of the night’s standout performers was Triangle actor Dan Mason, who played sun god Apollo with a delightful contrast: a baritone voice as strong as 10 young men and the physical frailty of an elderly curmudgeon. He knows what kind of show he’s in, and he’s damn fun to watch.
The wacky movements and robust voice of Savoyards regular Stuart Albert impressed, while Mary Elisabeth Hirsch’s clear soprano was a vocal highlight. Kent Parks’ facial expressions communicated the fury of warlike Mars with little dialogue.
Adding much flavor to the evening was the addition of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury — a 45-minute one-act that starts off the night. This is the sixth presentation of this piece by the Durham Savoyards, and they have it down pat.
Director-choreographer Derrick Ivey’s staging, with its many marching lines and circular patterns, manages to fit an enormous cast on the East Chapel Hill High School stage, with a table and chairs taking up much of the room. He keeps things lively with lots of movement, but he manages to minimize distraction (more successfully here than in Thespis).
As with Thespis, the cast occasionally rushed the beat, but maestro Jackson Cooper could usually get us back on track. The ensemble’s harmonies were smooth and warm, but the singers’ brief attempt at tap-dancing might have added more comedy than was intended.
With engaging reactions and an impressive vocal range, Tyler Graeper was a joy to watch as dejected lover Edwin, while Bruce Conner is charming as the cross Usher. As the glamorous and flirtatious Angelina, Elizabeth Hankla’s Juilliard-trained soprano soared operatically above the rest, and Michael Rowe’s rich lyric baritone gives the Counsel for the Plaintiff much authority.
An intermission is presented after the 45-minute Trial by Jury. But Thespis needs a break between its two acts, which run a total of 1 hour and 45 minutes. An intermission could be used in lieu of the extraneous entr’acte song, “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” from The Mikado. Despite its flaws, the double bill is a worthwhile ticket for Gilbert & Sullivan fans or those looking for a sweet, unchallenging escape.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 11th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/durham-savoyards-revive-thespis-a-lost-scandalous-gilbert-and-sullivan-opera/Content?oid=8683084.
The Durham Savoyards, Ltd. present THESPIS and TRIAL BY JURY at 8 p.m. Oct. 13, 7 p.m. Oct. 14, and 3 p.m. Oct. 15 at East Chapel Hill High School, 500 Weaver Dairy Rd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514.
TICKETS: $25, with a discount for for children 11 or under.
BOX OFFICE: 984-244-0668 or https://durhamsavoyards.org/backstage/our-next-show/see-it/tickets/.
SHOW: http://durhamsavoyards.org/our-next-show/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/802628686581245/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVXkxSyNTkc.
PRESENTER: http://durhamsavoyards.org/, https://www.facebook.com/durhamsavoyards/, https://twitter.com/durhamsavoyards, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3EzCL7uQqAPdotAhjhgwGA. BLOG: http://derrickivey.wordpress.com/.
VENUE: http://echhs.chccs.k12.nc.us/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/East-Chapel-Hill-High-School/113339252009672, and https://twitter.com/eastchapelhill.
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.