BWW Reviews: PRINCESS IDA Produced by Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin is Hysterical and Current
There's certainly a reason why the works of Gilbert and Sullivan have remained a fixture in popular culture for nearly 150 years. Their operas are fun, frivolous, and tinted with social and political satire. Though Princess Ida, their eighth operatic collaboration, may not be as well-known as some of their other works such as The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinifore, or The Mikado, it is just as silly, entertaining, and smart, as the current production by The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin wonderfully illustrates.
In the opera, written in 1884, King Hildebrand's son, Hilarion, awaits the arrival of his future bride, Princess Ida, to whom he became betrothed at the age of two. Unfortunately, Ida never shows as she has sworn off men and founded a women's only school. To win over his bride and to stave off war between his father and hers, Hilarion and his friends venture to Ida's university disguised as (what else) three little maids from school. When Ida discovers their true identities, all are thrown into a literal battle of the sexes.
Though it's certainly not as celebrated as the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Princess Ida is still a wonderful collaboration between the two men. Arthur Sullivan's score is bouncy and frothy, as to be expected. Likewise, W.S. Gilbert's libretto is fantastically clever and witty. Unlike several of their other operas, Ida features many moments of blank verse dialogue which makes it feel a bit like a book musical and makes it more accessible to modern audiences. Of course, truth be told, the piece would be accessible even if it were sung through; the opera's themes about feminism, male chauvinism, the battle of the sexes, and even evolution still feel current and fresh.
Director Ralph MacPhail, Jr. brings said themes to the forefront of GSSA's production of Princess Ida, ensuring that the entire evening is exuberant and lighthearted. Though the modest-sized stage at the Worley Barton Theater causes some of the larger full-cast scenes to feel a bit cramped, the staging is otherwise quite effective, particularly in smaller scenes, and the set by Ann Marie Gordon is bright and blissfully idyllic. The orchestra, led by Musical Director Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, is absolutely perfect, and the ensemble cast members are all gifted singers with rich voices.
All of the supporting and leading performers are equally outstanding. Patricia Combs plays Ida's fellow professor and rival, Lady Blanche, as a devious, grande dame diva, and she has a set of pipes and strong comedic timing to support her performance choices. As Lady Psyche, Professor of Humanities, Amelie Ciskey gives a fantastic performance, and her rendition of "A lady fair of lineage high" is a comedic highlight of the evening. Angela Irving is also delightfully funny as Lady Blanche's daughter, Melissa. As Ida's three brothers, Russell Gregory, Robert L. Schneider, and Spencer Reichman get laugh after laugh by playing their ridiculous characters with unwavering seriousness. Holton Johnson plays the male lead of Hilarion with a certain childlike-innocence, and his tenor voice is superb. However, his best moments come when he gets to share the stage with Hilarion's best friends Cyril, played by Michael Borysow, and Florian, played by Derek Smootz. When Johnson, Borysow, and Smootz get to play off one another, the result is an operatic Three Stooges.
But the greatest crowd pleasers in the cast are Arthur DiBianca as Ida's father, King Gama, and Michelle Haché as Ida herself. DiBianca gives perhaps the most comical performance as the old, cranky, crippled Gama, and the audience eats up every one of his sneers and sarcastic jibes. As Princess Ida, Michelle Haché shows once again that she easily one of the strongest sopranos in Austin. Her voice is incredible and chill-inducing, but unlike some singers, her acting is always as good as her voice. Haché's Ida is stubborn, headstrong, courageous, and constantly engaging.
Though it's by no means the most celebrated or known of Gilbert and Sullivan's works, Princess Ida is still a masterpiece of comedy, and Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin's production of the piece is highly enjoyable. With joy abiding, go see this show!
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including two 15 minute intermissions.
PRINCESS IDA, produced by The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin, plays the Worley Barton Theater at The Brentwood Christian School located at 11908 N Lamar Blvd, Austin 78753 now thru June 23rd. Performances are Thursday thru Saturday at 7:30pm with additional performances at 2pm on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $7-$30. For tickets and information, please visit www.gilbertsullivan.org