By Philippa Kiraly, Special to The Sybaritic Singer
Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida is one of the lesser known operettas of the canon but has some of the best music of all of them and a story as delightful as any of the other thirteen. Given that they are all around a century and a half old and very English, it’s amazing that with only a little tweaking, the stories can be as relevant today as they were then, skewering with laughter some of the conventions and social mores of the time.
Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s current production of Ida takes Gilbert’s 19th century view of feminism and upends it, while at the same time driving home that that view is unfortunately by no means dead today in the 21st century.
The production, which opened last weekend and runs through July 28 at the Bagley Wright Theater is fresh, colorful, lively and absurd, and as well performed and sung as any G & S I have seen over the decades either here or in England.
Briefly, the story is of a prince and princess, married in infancy, who grow up without meeting again until young adulthood. While Prince Hilarion is agog to meet his bride again, Princess Ida has decided she will devote herself and 100 other young women to being Educated with a capital E, meanwhile eschewing anything to do with the male species. Hilarion and friends break into her Castle Adamant and dress as women until first one then another is unmasked, to the mixed delight and horror of the girls. Hilarion’s belligerent father arrives with troops, having arrested Ida’s father and his sons and threatening to behead them if Ida doesn’t give in. Needless to say, after troop clashes and a furious princess, all ends happily.
This is the 64th season for Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society and it is proving as timeless as the shows themselves. This year completes a total turnover of staff, creative team and performers from even a few years ago, and it is a pleasure to see that the spirit of G & S remains undimmed. Only music director Bernard Kwiram remains since the early 2000s.
It’s also a pleasure to see the cast at the right ages. Fine singing pervades the cast and the orchestra sounds stronger than it sometimes has, with notable brass and winds.
It’s always a problem with G & S, and this show is no different, to hear the words. Despite clear effort with enunciation and accents, the words of the songs are rarely audible except in snatches. Supertitles would not work as there are just too many words, often sung fast and to watch them would detract from watching the acting. However, the action makes the story clear enough to follow easily.
In this production of Ida, that the words are frequently not clear is perhaps a good thing. Gilbert was obviously not a fan of women’s higher education, whereas today, the idea of a women’s college is normal, but the absurdities Gilbert brings out are as absurd today.
Perhaps the biggest and hilarious change on this stage is that Ida’s brothers, when they arrive, are cross-dressing women who easily outfight Hilarion and his friends, using judo techniques to bring them to their knees.
The acting and voices are uniformly excellent and all should be mentioned, but notably Lindsey Nakatani shines as the princess and Dawn Padula as Lady Blanche has a speaking voice reminiscent of Julia Child, perfect for the role.
Staging by Crystal Dawn Munkers keeps the action moving in true G & S style, scenic designer Bill Forrester has created an imaginative set for the women’s classes, with a hanging dinosaur skeleton (which drops down to frighten the soldiers), a huge globe and Latin inscription over the arch. Lee Ann Hittenberger’s fight choreography works brilliantly, while Ahren Buhmann’s lighting and Doris Black’s costumes support the show.
Philippa Kiraly has writing classical music criticism since 1980, for several newspapers in northern Ohio and Seattle, magazines, both local and national, and blogs. She is passionate about the importance of independent criticism for the fine arts, an art in itself which is dying with little interest by many publications and no longer a viable career for most. But writing for tickets is always worthwhile!
Pippa is a keen gardener, a keen grandparent, and can get lost in a good book.