The Yeoman of the Guard

Reflecting the turbulent and changing times of the Renaissance, Pittsburgh Savoyard’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and His Maid dishes up comedy spiced with some merry melancholy. While mostly darkness and doom lurked at the Tower of London during the mid-1500s, the piece manages to provide beauty through lovely melodies and a host of characters that are both realistic and entertaining.

Yeomen draws on the dark reign of Henry VIII where execution at the tower could be at the King’s whim or around the era’s religious and cultural superstitions. When a gentleman, Colonel Fairfax, is wrongly accused by his own cousin of sorcery, his death sentence is to be carried out within 24 hours. After a pair of strolling singers shows up to entertain in the tower village, a plan is hatched to secretly marry player Elsie Maynard to the Colonel who wants to avoid transfer of his estate away from his devious cousin.

As her adoring partner, Jack Point assumes he can still marry Elsie when she is a wealthy widow, a happy ending for the entertaining pair is predicted. Not so fast for the “topsy-turvydom” of G&S set in with disguises, an escape from the Tower, unrequited love, and some very mismatched coupling.

Sullivan considered Yeomen, his 11th collaboration with Gilbert, to be his best score. It overflows with lovely songs, duets, trios, and a charming madrigal quartet. Gilbert’s lyrics are as thought-provoking and witty as ever, confirming this as a stellar late example of their collaboration. The orchestra under Guy Russo is robust, providing reasonably full instrumentation for yet another complex and nuanced G&S score. Singing here is overall first rate; the featured leads have impressive credentials and training.

Returning lead Andy Hickly shines with a layered Jack Point, the jester who loves his partner Elsie, played for three performances by soprano Sarah Marie Nadler, returning after several other Savoyards leading roles. Hinly and Nadler shine in the show’s central number, “I have a Song to Sing Oh,” which laments the risks of love in sweet Renaissance style and is aptly choreographed in simple street pantomime style. They are charming together and when they are paired with others. Nadler’s sweet soprano and subtle comedy define Elsie as a unique G&S heroine.

Corey Nile Wingard gives a sharp turn as the persistent Wilfred Shadbolt, the Tower’s head jailor, and assistant tormentor. His crush is Phoebe, sung  by the versatile and comic delight Christine McGrath, who manages to lift his keys during her delightfully ironic “Were I thy Bride.”

Her father, Sargeant Meryll was played by longtime Savoyard lead Michael Greenstein, himself pursued by the ruling Tower housekeeper Dame Carruthers, well sung on Saturday by Rachel Silverstein. Mia Bonnewell applied her sweet soprano to the role her niece, Kate. The Act II madrigal, “Strange Adventure,” when the three are joined by Fairfax portrayed by Paul Yeater, was another Tower jewel of harmony and wit. It’s just one of many songs that G&S fans new to Yeoman will love.

Integral to the plot is Yeater’s doubling as Meryll’s son, Leonard. The look-alikes never have to appear on stage at the same time due to another smart device of Gilbert’s imagination to save the day.

Michael Perry is a robust Sir Richard, lieutenant of the Tower while the women’s chorus shines and the men’s chorus would benefit from a few more singers who move well.

Sally Denmead returns for her third outing as stage director. Her thoughtful movement begins during the overture as the Grim Reaper roams the Tower, survey his future victims. Characters interact in everyday tasks and moments reflective of the relationships we will see played out. And all snake behind the Reaper in a Bergmanesque dance of death. Throughout Denmead makes maximum use of the compact set, inspired by the Tower’s iconic architecture.  Denmead avoids choreography and movement that add to the existing acoustical challenges (especially when singer are far upstage), but a more straightforward and more conceptual set might have allowed for more creative movement.

The production requires more technical support that the Savoyards can seem to muster.  As per their mission, the Savoyards must produce demanding operatic pieces. It’s a difficult balance to depict a historical piece on minimal resources, but lighting the stage more completely and addressing some weaknesses in hair and makeup should be priorities.

The group’s new capital campaign for space for rehearsals and technical processes should help to build efficiency and professional work settings.  It’s significant that you can trace the artistic lineage of many regional singers and artists to the Savoyards. There are also a lot of learning opportunities here for the next generation of singers and theatre technicians.

Hats off for the Savoyards for its eight-decade run and its perseverance for introducing G&S to the next generation of singers and audiences. An excellent introduction to the genre of opera and the precursors to the modern musicals, the G&S canon is one to study and enjoy.

Remaining performances are at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall 300 Beechwood Avenue Carnegie on Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 18th to 20th at   8 pm, and Sunday, Oct. 21st at 2:30 pm. Thursday night is a pay-what-you-will admission with regular tickets ranging from $12 to $25 on the Savoyards web site: https://www.showclix.com/event/the-yeomen-of-the-guard 

Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh  LinkedIn

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