Monday, August 29, 2011

Yeoman of the Guard - Sierra Madre Playhouse

Matthew Welch and Michelle Caravia

Gilbert & Sullivan works are not often done in Los Angeles so I was excited to learn that Sierra Madre Playhouse was producing a Gilbert & Sullivan Festival this Fall. The month-long schedule of events includes a series of concerts, readings of plays by Gilbert, and a full production of Yeoman of the Guard, one of the pair’s finest works.

The story follows Colonel Fairfax (Joseph Gárate), who is imprisoned in the Tower of London, and is about to be executed on trumped up charges. To prevent his estate from ending up in the hands of his devious cousin upon his death, he secretly marries Elsie (Michelle Caravia) a poor but lovely singer, who only agrees because she needs the money that will be given as payment, allowing her to remain with her beau, Jack Point (Matthew Welch). Unfortunately for Jack, Fairfax escapes, everything gets confused, and after many twists and turns, it all eventually work out…at least for most of the characters.

An interesting note about the work is that Yeoman is a departure from Gilbert & Sullivan's usual satire and topsy-turvy story lines, and is the only opera with a serious ending, though it still contains a great deal of humor. Even the Shakespearian cadence of the dialogue fits nicely with the more sophisticated score by Sullivan. And, as with all G&S operas, it requires skillful, agile singers and a great deal of musicianship.

To be sure, there are some beautiful voices to be found among the cast, whose bios are filled with operatic credits from prestigious training programs and professional companies. Caravia’s sparkling soprano and Gárate’s clear and pleasing tenor are two of the finest, and Michelle Holmes (as the aged spinster Dame Carruthers) has an easy, almost lyrical pop quality to her voice that was unexpected and quite lovely.

But beautiful voices are not enough to sustain a Gilbert & Sullivan production that is hindered by lifeless direction and choreography that is neither well executed nor well thought out. Simply moving the actors around onstage while they sing over our heads does little to bring the story to life and next to nothing to engage the audience.

One of the most distracting performances was that of Welch as Jack Point. His dreadful Cockney accent and penchant for alternately mugging and speaking into the floor completely undermined any chance of sympathy for his character - unfortunate because he does have a beautiful baritone singing voice and a plot twist that should be a tragic high point of the story. One wonders how the director didn’t notice that you can’t understand a word he says.

The Tower of London set design is by Edward Haynes, Jr. and he has used his small space very effectively, and Shon le Blanc has designed the beautiful costumes. Brian Asher Alhadeff provides the musical direction and Eugene J. Hutchins is the director and choreographer. Additional members of the cast include Maria Elena Altany, Glenn Fernandez, Steve Kubick, Michelle McWilliams, Luis Marez Ordaz, Jay Parker, Ryan Reithmeier, Katherine Trimble, and Tara Waldschmidt.

The Yeomen of the Guard runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm. Sierra Madre Playhouse is located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024. Click Here for tickets and festival information.

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