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Take a trip to Fairyland

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Faster than you can shake a magic wand, Winnipeg's Gilbert and Sullivan Society whisked its loyal fans to Fairyland Wednesday night with its newest production of Iolanthe.

The two-and-a-half-hour production (including intermission) featured an all-Winnipeg cast directed by Reid Harrison. A 23-piece orchestra impeccably led by John Standing performed the live score that gives a nod to both Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner.

The two-act comic opera that premiered in 1882 is both a fantastical tale of fairies and satirical skewering of the British parliamentary system. When the story begins, fairy Iolanthe (Cathryn Harrison) has been banished from Fairyland by the Fairy Queen (Donnalynn Grills) for the capital crime of marrying a mortal. She is pardoned, and returns with her shepherd son Strephon (Darren Martens), equal parts human/fairy, engaged to Phyllis (Amanda Bruneau) who is a ward of the Court of Chancery. The Lord Chancellor (Fred Cross) must grant his permission for the nuptials but also struggles with his feelings for the young shepherdess.

G & S veteran Cross is simply a joy to watch as one of this city's musical crown jewels. His spot-on portrayal of the haughty Lord Chancellor puffs with self-importance as he attempts to maintain control of the chorus of Peers. His flawless delivery of tongue-twisting patter song Love, Unrequited, Robs Me of My Rest during the nightmare scene earned him sustained applause. Spitting out rapid-fire words can't be any easier even if it's your third time performing this lead character.

It's also a pleasure to see Grills reprise her role as the "influential fairy." This longtime Winnipeg dynamo is renowned for her dramatic gifts; she can also crack deadpan jokes about Jets and even the NDP. Her solo Oh, Foolish Fay where she resists the charms of Gerrit Theule's hilarious Private Willis while mooning over a certain hockey player nearly brought the house down.

In her G & S debut, Bruneau sparkled as the guileless maiden torn, at one point, between marrying Lords Tolloler (Aqvar Manhas) and Mountararat (Chris Caslake). Her clear as a bell soprano easily harmonized with Martens' tenor during their sonorous duets Good Morrow, Good Lover and If We're Weak Enough to Tarry.

The chorus of Peers made a grand entrance in Loudly Let the Trumpet Bray contrasted with the Fairies' Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither guided by their twinkling wands.

Sheldon Johnson's stunning set design rivals any created by brilliant Winnipeg theatre designer Brian Perchaluk. A modernistic backdrop of silhouetted tree trunks richly lit by Dean Cowieson quickly updated the 130-year old opera, surpassed only by his looming Big Ben clock face in Act II. Costumes by Jan Malabar/Harlequin Costumes ranged from resplendent ruby robes for the Peers to twinkling fairy frocks.

For the most part, Harrison's effective direction flowed well, however more stage business -- such as Cross clenching his bewigged Paddington teddy bear during the dream scene -- would have added more irreverent fun. Some balance issues, particularly almost inaudible singers during Act I were resolved after intermission.

Opening night for these shows used to draw upwards of 1,200 patrons. It's downright unsettling to see so many vacant seats. Still, the mostly older crowd of 272 responded enthusiastically to this grown-up fairy tale while trolling a few taradiddles of their own.

Iolanthe flies again Friday, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Pantages Playhouse Theatre.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

Concert review

Iolanthe

Gilbert and Sullivan Society

To March 31 at Pantages Playhouse Theatre

Tickets: $40.50 at Ticketmaster

Three and a half stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2012 D5

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