Savoyards’ “Gondoliers” Sails Splendidly

An essential Gilbert and Sullivan for newbies and long-time fans alike, the Pittsburgh Savoyards’ Spring production The Gondoliers or, the King of Barataria, deserves your attention. Superbly sung and thoughtfully directed by Andy Hickly, this version of Gondoliers sparkles under the baton of Guy Russo, music director and conductor.


The Gondoliers features the expected W.S. Gilbert topsy-turvy plot of confused identities, topical political commentary, and outrageously clever lyrics. Arthur Sullivan provides some of his most beloved tunes here and impeccably charming settings of Gilbert’s delightful rhymes and witty words.


The complexity of G&S scores belies the operas’ perceived light subject matter. Happily anticipate outstanding voices and a crisp, full orchestration with 35 players for this ninth main stage Gondoliers in the Savoyards’ 81st season.


Hilty and Russo populate the show with a talented company led by some top-notch singers for the 22 multi-faceted pieces listed in the program. Favorites include “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes,” “Bridegroom and Bride (When a Merry Maiden Marries),” and “Dance a cachucha.”


The leads are well-supported by the Savoyards’ outstanding women’s chorus and the small, but intrepid, men’s ensemble with more than two dozen choristers on stage. Leading singers rotating between some featured roles offer more depth in the chorus. This Savoyards’ tradition also offers more singers the chance to learn and perform roles that are challenging and provide career experience for young artists.


Here, one gondolier might well be a king in this “switched at birth” plot. Two Venice gondoliers wed their beloveds before learning that one of the Palmieri brothers was married to a Spanish royal as an infant. The Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra del Bolero, aims to sort it out, manipulating everyone’s fate and banishing the brothers to Barataria. The other gondoliers join them there, existing without the company of women. There’s great hilarity as both the men and their women express their distress through dance, tears, and even tranquil contemplation. As their lives veer out of control, they wonder who will emerge as the King and Queen.


The situation fuels a vibrant musical adventure laden with beloved solos, duets, quartets, and quintets. The chorus of contadina and gondolieri are full of characters with get tipsy, seek romance, and dance a little while they sing a great deal.


The down-on-his-luck Duke of Plaza-Toro arrives in Venice, leading the established royals with his Duchess wife, daughter Casilda, and Luiz, attendant and drummer. Jack M. Mostow brings authority and lovely acting and singing chops to the this “grandee of Spain,” a signature G&S role.


As his Duchess, Rachel Silverstein is delightfully pompous and domineering as his wife. These parents married off their daughter Casilda to the anticipated King of Barataria when she was just an infant.  


Mia Bonnewell’s Casilda benefits from her sweet soprano and sincerity in a role that is quite engaging. As Luiz, Alexander Policicchio displays a great range as a romantic lead who is initially seen as a servant. When he declares his love for Casilda musically it’s heavenly, and his duets with Bonnewell are heart-warming as both their talent shines. Throughout, these five carry much of the plot and musical demands, so it’s a joy to hear them sing together.


Likewise, the two other leading couples sing wonderfully and provide much of the show’s comic and romantic action as commoners who lead simple lives. Two of the region’s most popular emerging singers appear as the titular gondoliers who are also brothers–Zachary Wood as Giuseppe and Andrew Boag as Marco. The pair are simply trying to survive on Venice canal, but see an opportunity as co-rulers to establish economic and social equality for the working class.


Appearing as Gianetta and Tessa are Jenna Weaver and Christine McGrath. Likewise these four sing their hearts out, displaying outstanding craft and range for each of their voice parts, making their duets and quartets musical confections to savor. Casilda joins them, setting up a second classic quintet, “In a complementive fashion”, in addition to the earlier “Try we lifelong.”


As the threatening Grand Inquisitor, David Alden returns to the Savoyards’ stage as in this role with gusto–chewing on all the words and notes of another classic character.


Featured singers also include Michael Greenstein as Antonio and Deborah Greenstein as Vittoria, bringing their depth of lead experience to supporting roles.


Other standout are are Brennan Bobish as Fiametta and Kat Bowman as Giulia, both contadina, and  featured gondoliers, Gerald Neuhaus and Don Gudenburr.

Given fun business as a quirky gondolier, Samwise Riley plies comedy and bits that support many numbers that could be just dull exposition. Hickly establishes Riley as a consistent “fool,” providing everything from painting Marco’s beloved wife, to torturing (in a family-friendly way, of course!) the lost prince’s nurse to get to the truth.


It’s wise that Robert Hockenberry’s set is practical, pretty and compact for what happens on stage in both Venice and the court of Barataria. Wearing the hats of scenic designer, artist, and technical director, he provides a versatile columned plaza, wide steps, and ample open stage area to support Hickly’s direction of varied sized ensembles and the large company.


Ellen Rose’s costumes are colorful and suggest the 1750 setting, but some might benefit from some more costume fittings. Lighting by Garth Schafer feels just right, supporting the action and musical transitions without complicated effects.


As director Hickly says in his note, this show is created for the fun of it. In addition to laughter, there’s even more to savor as the plot is riddled with political jibes and observations open to our contemporary interpretation.


The plentiful melodies and plot twists layer on even more delight. Russo rallies his strong orchestra, including some charming percussive effects. If you know the music well (as does this writer, having been a past chorus member and Duchess here), you will hear all the required orchestral notes and embellishments.


This is one of several G&S operettas that are perfect for introducing the unintiated of all ages. Indeed full of topical humor, these pieces often updated lyrics or contemporary references to increase relevance and laughs for today’s audiences. Hickly resists this urge and instead relies on what the Savoyards do well.


Would that we have space to name everyone on stage–including those in doubling roles on opening night, and the dates alternating with some of the singers this writer heard on Sat., March 16 and are heard again this Friday and Sunday, March 22 and 24. (See everyone listed in the website).


As this is one of the strongest and most consistent Savoyards productions in the past few years, so a continued ascent is predicted for this company. The troupe has also just made a home in Bellevue for rehearsals and operations through a continuing capital campaign. Audiences can be assured that the Savoyards are here to stay, while Ruddigore and The Mikado are slated for the 82nd season.


Anyone who loves the merriest and some of the best of G&S should experience it, especially as presented by the exuberant and dedicated Pittsburgh Savoyards. Get to Gondoliers! You’ll have more fun watching this live performance than watching anything on a screen.

Remaining performances of The Gondoliers are at 8 pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, March 21, 22, and 23, with a 2:30 pm Sunday matinee at the intimate Victorian Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie. The dining options are convenined on Main St. where shuttle moves patrons quickly from a large municipal lot (9-111 E Main St., Carnegie, 15106) to the theatre where parking is limited unless arriving on the early side. TIckets ($12-25) and details are available online


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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