2017-03-17 / On The Town

Opera takes aim at class struggles, politics

PLAY REVIEW /// ‘The Gondoliers’
By Cary Ginell


SOARING SATIRE—From left, Jeff Berg (Giuseppe), Laura Jackson (Casilda), Kirk Garner (Marco) and Richard Shaw (the Grand Inquisitor) star in “The Gondoliers” at Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks. 
Courtesy of J.S. Pillsbury/VCGSRC SOARING SATIRE—From left, Jeff Berg (Giuseppe), Laura Jackson (Casilda), Kirk Garner (Marco) and Richard Shaw (the Grand Inquisitor) star in “The Gondoliers” at Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks. Courtesy of J.S. Pillsbury/VCGSRC Political junkies will roil at the view of “Republicanism” as expressed in “The Gondoliers,” but that’s just part of the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert & Sullivan, who wrote the 1889 opera satirizing class struggles and politics.

The Ventura County Gilbert and Sullivan Repertoire Company’s production of “The Gondoliers” opened last Friday at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks.

The opera takes place in 18th century Venice and the fictional kingdom of Barataria. One of two gondolier brothers, Giuseppe and Marco Palmieri, is deemed to be Barataria’s long-sought king, married at birth to the beauteous Casilda, daughter of the Duke of Plaza Toro.

Both brothers, however, have recently married peasant girls— one called Tessa, the other Gianetta— which would make the anointed king a bigamist when his identity is divulged.

The VCGSRC has again staged a magnificent production, heightened by melodious singing, a larger-than-usual orchestra and a feast of sumptuous costumes.

The producer/director duo John and Rebecca Pillsbury have made sure the vaunted gondola mechanism, designed and constructed by Jeremy Hanes and his team, operates more smoothly than the one that graced the VCGSRC’s previous production of the opera in 2011. Said gondola faultlessly glides on stage several times during the show, making its entrances and exits like an obedient puppy.

For much of the play, the merry gondolier brothers rule jointly, awaiting the pronouncement of the true ruler by the mother of Luiz, drummer to the Duke. Luiz’s mother is enduring enhanced interrogation in a kind of Gilbert & Sullivan Gitmo, which promises to reveal which brother will ascend to the throne.

The Republicanism the brothers espouse is a far cry from today’s Republican Party in the U.S. In “The Gondoliers,” Republicanism is a distorted view of socialism, in which “everybody is somebody so no one is anybody.”

The muddled plot is complicated by the fact that there are more principal roles than in most other G&S operas, requiring a mental scorecard to get everyone straight.

This was deliberate, in that the regular players of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, who staged the original performances more than a century ago, all desired prominent roles, so Gilbert simply expanded the cast list.

Leading the way are Kirk Garner as Marco and Jeff Berg as Giuseppe, the erstwhile Gondoliers in-Chief. In his third VCGSRC performance, Garner does a fine job, but it’s Berg who carries the show with his breezy, likable performance as Giuseppe. Berg always makes everyone around him better, and he is joined here by his real-life paramour, Vivian Gibson, as Giuseppe’s bride, Tessa.

Casting couples together in romantic roles is a double-edged sword—sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t—but Berg and Gibson make a charming, affectionate couple, as do Garner and Jessica Berns (as Gianetta), both of whom graduated with Master of Music degrees from Cal State Northridge and are recently engaged.

The two couples are especially splendid when they sing together, as in the Act I closing quartet, “Then one of us will be a queen,” and “In a contemplative fashion,” in which they reason how two men can be married to three women.

The musical zenith of the show is the charming “Dance a cachucha,” the “reckless delight of that wildest of dances,” featuring the entire ensemble, which showcases Becky Castells’ impeccable choreography.

The cast includes VCGSRC mainstays John Pillsbury and Sydney Bowers as the Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro, veteran G&S performer Richard Shaw as the Grand Inquisitor and the always exquisite Laura Jackson as Casilda.

Roland Mills, whose credits are as lengthy as the Venusian canal system, makes an impressive VCGSRC debut as Luiz. Zach Spencer leads the seven-piece orchestra. “And contented are we” who were there for opening night.

“ The Gondoliers” plays through March 26 in the Hillcrest Center’s Theatre on the Hill. Visit www.vcgsrc.org for details.

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