Saturday, March 3, 2018

"The Grand Duke" - An Adult Fairy Tale (with Music)

There’s much to be said for rarity. Scarcity, it seems, tends to add value. Take gold for instance, or, on a lighter note, Gilbert and Sullivan’s last collaborative effort, "The Grand Duke."

First staged in 1896 at the Savoy Theatre in London, the show closed after a relatively short run of 123 performances, then sat mainly on the back burner until the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company revived it in 1975. Over the years, "The Grand Duke" has been one of the less produced of all G & S operettas.

The same historical thread seems to have held true for Southwestern Pennsylvania’s own G & S troupe, The Pittsburgh Savoyards, founded in 1938 and now celebrating its 80 anniversary.

Over the course of its illustrious history, the theatrical group first performed ."The Grand Duke" in 1977 and is only now giving it a second go-round this month with a seven performance run at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie that ends March 11.

The very rarity of the operetta is one of the factors that induced me to attend Friday evening’s opener. The same factor seems to have boosted attendance as production manager Lynette Garlan seemed pleased with "one of the company’s largest opening night audiences" in recent years.
Besides jumping on the rare opportunity to see this regrettably neglected work, theatergoers who make the trek to Carnegie are in for a fun and entertaining evening. The large cast and hefty-sized orchestra under the direction of Guy Russo bring a remarkable zeal and spirited animation that do much to insure a successful run.

The story line goes beyond the boundaries of absurdity in its attempt at comedy and stretches satire to the breaking point. The result is an almost cartoonish caricature that successfully amuses nevertheless in the manner of an adult fairy tale. Stage director Robert Hockenberry took Gilbert’s original 4-hour long libretto and condensed it to a two, hour and twenty minute run time (intermission included) without losing any of its whimsy or, more importantly, clarity.

The proceedings take place in the Grand Duchy of Pfennig Halbpfennig, where the penny-pinching ruler, Rudolph (Michael Greenstein), has alienated the affection of his subjects, especially those in a theatrical troupe led by its manager Ernest Ddummkopf (Paul Yeater).
The troupe launches a plot to overthrow the Grand Duke and replace him with Dummkopf. Conspirators devise a plan to recognize one another by eating sausage rolls (yes, things can get silly) but before they go any further, Ludwig, a fellow conspirator, lets the cat out of the bag by innocently informing one of the duke’s spies of the plot.

To help thwart any criminal repercussions, Ludwig and Dummkopf agree to participate in a "statutory duel," a hundred-year provision in the legal code that allows them to decide the issue by playing cards rather than by brandishing swords or firing pistols.

Adding further seasoning to the story line is the engagement of the Duke to, not one, but four would-be brides, vexatious entanglements in the order of untying the proverbial Gordian knot.  Known for their ability to escape from seemingly hopelessly convoluted predicaments, Gilbert and Sullivan manage yet another facetious escape that brings an ingenious emotional release sure to tickle the funny bone.

The large choral ensemble provides much of the evening’s best music, their voluminous harmonies a pleasure to listen to. As Julia, Anna Lahti has one of the best solo voices, and Andy Hickly adds comic as well as vocal talent to his role of Ludwig.

Special moments to watch for include the spirited trio "With Wily Brain" sung splendidly by Paul Yeater (Ernest), Michael Greenstein (Rudolph) and Ryan Garbee (A Notary), the beautifully sung "So Ends My Dream" by Anna Lahti, and the cleverly satiric "As O’er Our Penny Roll We Sing" sung with comic charm by Sally Denmeand (the Baroness) and Michael Greenstein.

Some of the roles are double cast and alternate on various performances. As the romantically distraught ingenue, Lisa,  Sarah Marie Nadler handled the role on the evening of my visit but shares the spotlight on other dates with Mia Bonnewell.

Chief carpenter, Edward Griffiths’s set is solid and versatile enough to serve as one master setting for the operetta’s various scenes, and self-taught and award-winning costumier Ellen Rosen creates some splendidly colorful wearables appropriate for both the royals and common folk

Interestingly enough, audience members Jack and Mary Ann Schmertz from Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood were members of the Savoyard choral ensemble in the 1977 production of "The Grand Duke" while music director Guy Russo, then a teenaged high school student, played the role of the Herald.

"As an audience member, I thought they did an excellent job [this time around]," said Mary Ann, a member of the Savoyards for 20 years and now a honorary lifetime member who also worked on costumes, posters and sets for the theater group.

"The Grand Duke" is at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Avenue in Carnegie. Through March 11. For tickets and performance times, phone  412-734-8476.

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