The set-up: The Sorcerer, the third collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan and their first full-length musical (1877), is the work that convinced producer D'Oyly Carte to bankroll their future partnership. It's all about love and magic. Strange, then, that there's no magic and very little love whatsoever in this production from our own internationally awarded Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston.
The execution: This is their most dreary production in memory, certainly the most plodding and soporific. Even the sprightly overture is played without spirit or nuance, which would make Victorian composer Sullivan quite unamused.
Where's the duo's patented sparkle, the razor wit, the exciting elan? Why is everybody stuck in tar? Why do they talk in slow-motion? W.S. Gilbert, the prototype of the modern auteur director, never would have allowed such fly-paper delivery. Get on with it, he would have yelled at his actors over the hissing gas lights.
Although The Sorcerer is hardly A-list G&S, it nevertheless possesses abundant charm, wicked lyrics, and lilting melodies that showcase what this musical comedy team would later produce (H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, The Mikado, Yeomen of the Guard).
Director Alistair Donkin, veteran "Savoy Opera" performer and director with an impressive G&S lineage, does no one any favors with this production, not even himself as J.W. Wells, the eponymous sorcerer who conjures up a love potion for the unsuspecting villagers. Why does director Donkin allow the misguided hero Alexis, who's lauded throughout as "brave" and "pride of his sex," to speak with fey falsetto and act like queen of the May? Why does he let the pace slacken into glacial? Why is everyone arrayed across the front of the stage in a straight line, like some antique 18th-century stage picture, as if Sarah Siddons was about to make a star turn? When not misguided, his direction is annoying and creaky beyond belief.
The G&S Society needs a blast of fresh air and a clarifying slap in the face to bring it boldly into the 21st century. The cable news ticker-tape surtitles on both sides of stage must go posthaste. The projected words are always a sentence or two behind what's being sung and said on stage, which only adds unnecessary confusion.
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G&S set the gold standard for musical comedy, and their influence changed show business forever. Without them there would be no Cole Porter, Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Andrew Lloyd Webber, name anyone you like. Everyone on Broadway is indebted to G&S.
The show is pleasantly sung (especially Megan Stapleton as heroine Aline, Sarah L. Lee as imposing Lady Sangazure, Sarah Santos as ingenue Constance, and the entire chorus) and looks most impressive in Dena Scheh's sumptuous Edwardian hobble skirts and pheasant-plumed millinery, all colorfully encased in Tom Boyd's storybook English village set with Maypole and manse, but there's no life at all on stage. This is theater on auto-pilot.
The verdict: While this early G&S work is no BMW, it was never a Model T. More gas and pedal to the metal, please.
Performances continue through July 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at gilbertandsullivan.org or call 281-724-8363. $39-$49.