The Rose of Persia: Sullivan Without Gilbert
Despite their enormous success in creating some of the English language's most beloved operettas, the working relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan was rarely a smooth one. With the composer feeling pressured by his contemporaries to write more serious music and the librettist's preference for material that skewered the privileged class that his partner was trying to cultivate as friends and patrons, the two frequently fought over their work. Sullivan was collaborating more frequently with other librettists when their penultimate operetta, Utopia, Limited, received no more than polite praise and the following The Grand Duke just plain flopped, and though he never achieved the kind of lasting success with others as he did with Gilbert, Sullivan's final composition for the stage, The Rose of Persia, written with Basil Hood, opened to favorable revues at its 1899 premiere and was quite popular in its day.
The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' one-night-only performance of The Rose of Persia, presented this past Thursday, was, as noted by the company's artistic director, Albert Bergeret, the first professional staging of the piece in over 70 years, and as such was a must-see for any local G&S lover, especially in NYGASP's deliciously frothy production. An accomplished assortment of singers and comics, directed both musically and in staging by Bergeret, were showcased handsomely in a piece that, though not lacking in charms, is most interesting for it's remarkable similarity to the better work of Gilbert and Sullivan.
The show's Arabian setting is a bit more Road To Morocco than The Desert Song, with its zany group of characters executing a complicated and farcical plot. The comic character Hassan (Richard Alan Holmes) is a wealthy philanthropist who prefers a modest, peaceful life so he limits himself to only 25 wives and opens his doors to visits by tramps and beggars, much to the dismay of his socially ambitious first wife (Angela Smith) who plots to have him declared insane. But it seems the royal folk all have a hankering for experiencing the simple life too. The Sultana named Rose-In-Bloom (Laurelyn Watson Chase) passes herself off as a slave girl in order to get some time away from the palace. A wandering story-teller, Yussuf (Michael Scott Harris), has fallen in love with the slave girl Heart's Desire (Kimberly Deana Bennett), but she is passing herself off as the Sultana in order to shield Rose-In-Bloom's identity. Meanwhile, the Sultan himself (David Wannen) has his reasons for masquerading as a dervish, along with his three officials. After much romantic confusion, mistaken identities and a bad trip on a drug called "bhang", the threat of four executions is avoided and a reasonably happy ending is achieved.
Under Bergert's baton, the 25-piece orchestra crisply played a rarely heard Sullivan score containing his typically sprightly collection of melodies, including many themes that strongly suggested his past successes. Hood's lyrics and dialogue are sufficiently amusing, but the style of his comedy is so close to that of Gilbert's that one is continually reminded at how much it pales by comparison. In fact, in spots where the plot seems almost lifted from Gilbert, the company has added a couple of inside jokes by quoting The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado at opportune moments.
But the NYGASP cast kept the proceedings at a merry pace, looking dazzling in Gail J. Wofford and Louis Dall'Ava's sparkly and colorful costumes. Holmes is a hearty and boisterous comedian and Smith played his overbearing wife with good humor. Chase and Harris were especially charming and in beautiful voice in their romantic parts. Soprano Megan Loomis and basso David Auxier added fine vocals and were both very funny in their small roles of the frisky slave girl Honey-of-Life and her jealous suitor, The Grand Vizier.
The Rose of Persia certainly leans more toward being an interesting curiosity than a forgotten treasure, but The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players are certainly to be commended for giving audiences a chance to see this rarity that certainly has its share of good laughs and enjoyable tunes.
Photo by Carol Rosegg:(l-r) Louis Dall'Ava, David Wannen, Angela Smith, Laurelyn Watson Chase, Michael Scott Harris, Kimberly Deana Bennett