UMGASS Delights with "The Gondoliers"


The Gondoliers and their Wives. None of them will be a Queen.

In foreground, left to right: Chris Kendall and Megan Maloney as Marco and Gianetta, and Ben Powell and Laurel Baker as Giuseppe and Tessa. Photo courtesy of UMGASS.

Beloved community institution UMGASS (The University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society) is back this weekend with a lovely production of Gilbert & Sullivan's last hit, The Gondoliers, or the King of Barataria.

Director and UMGASS staple Lee Vahlsing points out in the show notes that The Gondoliers was the product of a compromise by producer Richard D'Oyly Carte to get another comic opera out of the simmering tensions of the relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan (at the time in 1889, Sullivan had already been knighted by Queen Victoria, but Gilbert would not be knighted until years later, in 1907, by King Edward); if they would collaborate on another comic opera, D'Oyly Carte would produce Sullivan's Grand Opera, Ivanhoe, and he would be taken seriously by high society at last, or something.

At any rate, as Vahlsing notes, this arrangement led to greater collaboration between the two than the rut they had fallen into, and the result is one of their best and most beloved Operettas. Lovingly staged with two charming sets and including truly impressive costuming, the only hint of modernity in this faithful production is a bit of Charleston in the choreography -- and perhaps a touch of Iron Maiden here and there.

I say with a great deal of fond familiarity and appreciation, that attending another UMGASS production is a little like seeing a new menu item at Taco Bell. You're already familiar with all the ingredients they have to work with, but you can never quite predict how they'll be combined to make something new. My word, you might say. I never would have thought to cast the sour cream as the sassy old broad. Or that you'd find the beef in the elder statesman role and the chicken doing a patter song. Or what on Earth! A POTATO? (Dear cast, this is just a protracted analogy. None of you are a potato.)

Protracted analogies aside, it is a joy to see how the UMGASS company of townies and students has been deployed this time. Regulars Chris Kendall and Ben Powell shine as the Titular Palmieri brothers. They do excellent work on the numerous Tenor / Baritone duets, and clearly have a fun, not too-bro-y chemistry that carries much of the humor of the show. They are joined by Megan Maloney as Gianetta and Laurel Baker as Tessa, both in their second UMGASS productions, and both sing beautifully and light up the stage as the new wives of the Gondoliers.

As in many other Savoy Operettas, the distance of a foreign land and culture is used to amp up the lampooning of the aristocrats, and in this production, the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro and their betrothed-from-birth daughter Casilda are a ridiculous highlight of the show. The Duke is played with sublime preposterous self-importance by UMGASS regular Natan Zamansky, and his delivery of some of the most preposterous lines of the show is outstandingly funny and still hits the elites right between the eyes. Elizabeth Mitchell impressively plays the Duchess, overshadowing the Duke at every turn as intended, and absolutely sparkling in "On the Day When I Was Wedded," where she clues the audience in on who really wears the bloomers in their relationship.

U-M sophomore Alexandra Kzeski returns as Casilda, a role that requires a truly impressive singer. She is amazing in her solos / duets with her star-crossed love Luiz (ably played and sang by Will Fishwick), and expertly anchors the top end of the harmonies in the numerous quartets and quintets throughout the show.

Finally, the gravitas-requiring role of Don Alhambra del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor, is embodied by Charles Sutherland, returning to UMGASS after 20 years to stand up for the social order and hierarchy as the hapless brothers attempt to make everyone equal, and delivering one of Gilbert's most revealing lines: "When everyone is somebodee, then no-one's anybody!"

So, if you're looking for a polished, entertaining evening (or afternoon) of theater, and don't mind snickering at how the phrase "Republican Equality" has aged, you can do no better than The Gondoliers, continuing throughout the weekend at the Mendelssohn Theater. Congratulations to cast and crew, and thank you for continuing to keep the G&S Flame burning brightly in Ann Arbor!

Eli Neiburger is Deputy Director of the Ann Arbor District Library and had no business being cast as Ralph Rackstraw in high school. Love levels all ranks, but it does not level them as much as that.

UMGASS presents The Gondoliers continues April 19, 20, and 21 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. Tickets available at Brown Paper Tickets or at the door.