Picture it: London, 1882. The Savoy Theatre debuts librettist William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan's latest operetta, Iolanthe.
It was an historic event; the show was pioneering new technology that brought a suitably magical touch to the "fairy opera." It was the first production to use the Savoy's electrically lighted stage, and magical little stars gleamed atop the heads of the fairies, powered by batteries concealed in their costumes. The audience was entranced.
Now, 130 years later, the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Winnipeg will inject its own bit of magic into its production of Iolanthe, running March 28-31 at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre.
Perennial favourite cast member, Fred Cross, who is playing the role of the lovable, if haughty, Lord Chancellor has applied his creative skills to invent new magic wands for the chorus of fairies. A telecommunications engineer by day, Cross designed and built the wands from scratch.
"They are about a foot long," said Reid Harrison, the show's director, during a phone interview. "They are made of clear Plexiglas tubing with LED lights that flash. They can flash in seven different ways by pressing buttons to change the sequence."
Part of the rehearsal process includes "wand lessons," said Harrison, "the fairies are going to have to learn to use them."
Special effects aside, there are many additional attractive attributes to the G & S Society's 22nd season production. "The music is so good," said Harrison. "It is some of Sullivan's best. (Sullivan was reputed to have fashioned the score after the style of Wagner, parodying Die Walküre and Das Rheingold) And the quality of the dialogue -- it's real satire -- is razor-sharp and truly funny. It always evokes laughter." Iolanthe pokes serious fun at the British House of Lords and the political party system.
The story is typical G & S: charmingly fantastical. Strephon the shepherd, played by tenor Darren Martens, wishes to marry the fair shepherdess Phyllis, sung by soprano Amanda Bruneau, who Harrison describes as "a lovely soprano with a nice way about her." Little does Phyllis know, but Strephon is half mortal and half fairy. When she spies him kissing a pretty young thing, Phyllis jealously jumps to conclusions, not realizing that the recipient of this affection is actually his mother, a full fairy, played by G & S veteran Cathryn Harrison. Her youthful appearance is attributed to the fact that fairies never grow old. Add to the mix a host of Phyllis' admirers, including her guardian, the Lord Chancellor and half the peers in the House of Lords plus a chorus of fairies led by Fairy Queen Donnalynn Grills and you're set for an evening of diversion that is the trademark of this talented troupe.
"The set is visually striking," said Harrison of designer Sheldon Johnson's work. "There is a lot of use of colour, with the forest and the clock face of Big Ben." Costuming for the society's shows has always been outstanding and this year, costumer Jan Malabar and Harlequin Costumes has done it again, said Harrison. "The lords wear gorgeous red robes and the fairies' costuming is a little more earthy, but still with some flash and sparkle." (And of course, there are the wands.)
There's no ordinary piano accompaniment for this production, as is the case with so many other small companies. The G & S Society boasts a 23-member orchestra led by John Standing. This is the full deal.
Iolanthe may not be the most familiar of Gilbert and Sullivan's collaborations but it has withstood the test of time, receiving regular performances around the world.
The Winnipeg group last mounted it in 2002.
"In a cast like ours, about a quarter of the cast is new and on top of that, many don't know the show when we start rehearsing it. So it's a learning process," Harrison said.
The singers are a combination of accomplished amateurs, students and professionals who auditioned back in September. Even with the kind of turnover Harrison described, there is a core group of performers that regular audience members will recognize. "They not only care about what we do artistically, but they care about the spirit of what we do. It's like being brought into a family."
Shows run Wednesday and Friday, March 28 and 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, March 31 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. Tickets are $35/adults and $15 for students and children. They are available through the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Box Office at 949-3999 or at www.wso.ca and at Ticketmaster - 1855-985-ARTS or www.ticketmaster.ca