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Opera's laughs sail along in mistaken-identity farce

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There are plenty of highlights in The Gilbert & Sullivan Society's production of The Gondoliers.

GARY BARRINGER Enlarge Image

There are plenty of highlights in The Gilbert & Sullivan Society's production of The Gondoliers.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Winnipeg's latest production, The Gondoliers, set sail Wednesday night with a tra-la-la and nod to 1950s la dolce vita.

Last staged by the company in 2007, the two-act comic opera composed by Arthur Sullivan based on W. S. Gilbert's libretto premièred in 1889. Its satirical tale of intrigue and mistaken identities is the 12th of the patter-loving partners' 14 operas and considered their last great success.

Originally set in 1750s Venice, stage director Reid Harrison transplanted this deliciously stylish production 200 years later to the mid-20th century. Jan Malabar's high-couture costumes include confection-coloured frocks, cloche hats and natty argyle sweaters that pop against set designer Sheldon Johnson's window-frame lattices, café tables and "Barataria" country-club wingback chairs and cocktail bar. Lighting designer Bill Williams' continuously shifting rainbow of colours projected on the upstage cyclorama provides visual contrast throughout the 165-minute (including intermission) show.

In a nutshell, Casilda (Deanna Smith) discovers she was married off as a baby by her destitute parents, the Duke (Fred Cross) and Duchess (Cathryn Harrison) of Plaza-Toro to the infant son/heir of the King of Barataria. After being substituted at birth with a gondolier, it's unclear whether the prince is actually the now-deceased boatman's strapping son Marco (Wes Rambo) or Giuseppe Palmieri (Sam Plett).

Naturally, Casilda is in love with another, the Duke's attendant Luis (Michael Dueck), before the truth is revealed and everyone lives happily, when "all is right, nothing is wrong."

The fetching score with the 22-piece orchestra crisply led by music director Michelle Mourre is a pastiche of international influences. Cathryn Harrison's effective choreography kept things moving -- literally. Seeing the always superb Cross -- the heart and soul of the society who has appeared in all 23 of its annual productions -- perform his dance breaks during I am a courtier was elegance personified.

Highlights included the full ensemble numbers -- including extended opening List and learn and Bridegroom and bride -- when the 40 youthful cast members raise their voices in four-part harmony. Others were the full-out, tongue-twisting patter numbers: From the sunny Spanish shores spat out with precision by Cross, Harrison, Smith and Dueck, and the increasingly frantic quartet In a contemplative fashion crisply performed by Rambo and Plett with their Venetian wives, Gianetta (Isabel Davis) and Tessa (Susanne Reiner).

Rambo came out of his shell more during the solo Take a pair of sparkling eyes, while Plett always oozed romantic swagger. Also, Inez (Gail Mildren), who dramatically pronounces the prince's true identity at the end, proved worth the nearly three-hour wait.

The Gondoliers is a comedy and humour abounded. Sly references to Bud Light beer and Target during There lived a king, when the gondolier "kings" explain their egalitarian, Republican-based kingdom to Don Alhambra (Scott Braun) drew titters from the opening night's mostly older audience. But the last laugh unwittingly came at the very end, when an early curtain drop obscured the entire cast belting out their finale. Even the orchestra members chuckled at the sight -- or lack thereof.

The Gondoliers continues nightly at 7:30 p.m. through May 3, including a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 2, 2014 D3

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