SAN DIEGO — It's too bad San Diego's Gilbert and Sullivan Company doesn't have as much money as it has spunk and enthusiasm.
The company's production of "Iolanthe," which continues through this weekend, lights up the Casa del Prado with a delightfully irreverent approach to the hallowed G&S favorite, hindered only by the usual budgetary limitations.
Director Welton Jones has meddled slightly with lyrics and dialogue (the new contributions are attributed to British critic John Elsom) to give the tale of fairies and British lords a gentle nudge into the 20th Century. With even a smidgen less cooperation from his cast, the attempt might have been an embarrassment. But not so. By the time the tampering comes around, we've been fully captivated by the musical's jolly spirit.
No drudges, these lords and fairies.
For once the men outshine the women, striding their noble, red velvet and ermine entrance to Sullivan's stirring, "Loudly Let the Trumpet Bray." They've wholeheartedly embraced the pompous thick-headedness Gilbert so gleefully minced and chopped in merciless satire.
Rather than stand about awkwardly, wondering what to do with hands and feet, this chorus is busy with individually created "characters," never missing a chance to embellish with simple stumbles or arrogant twists of the head.
They're fully up to the second act's innovations, led by George Weinberg-Harter as the wigged and robed Lord Chancellor, playing out another outstanding comic interpretation with a natural flair. Weinberg-Harter is a delight, his patter-song, "Love, Unrequited, Robs Me of My Rest," so much fun it's a shame we couldn't have an instant replay--an MTV version, perhaps? If ever there were to be such a shock to tradition, it might have turned up in this production.
The fairies, as ever, are clothed in sherbet-colored, winged and glittered things. They, alone, remain timeless, as every good fairy should. Costumer Gordon Lusk has rendered some nicely intricate touches for them, but they are still a little drab, particularly the Fairy Queen (Patricia McAfee) in black and gold.
While their songs trickle arily along, these fairies move less than gracefully. Iolanthe (Algene Adams) is the exception. Her seaweed and veil cannot conceal the fact that she is, indeed, a fairy, troubled by a banishment from her fairy sisters, a mortal husband who thinks her dead and a son in love with a ward of the lecherous Lord Chancellor.
The star-crossed couple, Shari Milow-Ferrelli as Phyllis and Lee Vahlsing as Strephon, are both sweetly sincere and vocally competent.
The tangling up and unraveling of their love knot is much too silly to relate in full. It all ends up with a surprising but happy twist, of course, so preposterous we cannot help but love it. And Jones has added to it a cute reference to a modern fairy lady's life style, which won't be revealed here.
Elsewhere, what was in Gilbert and Sullivan's time a reference to the well-known local fire captain has become a fun little jab at that most modern British official, Princess Di--a figure to be emulated, the love-stricken fairies are told, because she wisely considers "sex a minor factor, and never fails to govern Wales."
But these few liberties do nothing to alter the fact that Sullivan's score and Gilbert's lyrics outshine anything one might try to add. Musically, this is a very even production, solidly executed by musical director Hollace Koman, orchestra and cast. The company boasts some beautiful voices, most notably Joseph Craiger's melted-butter baritone as Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards.
Tim Reeve's lighting does not serve the production well, losing itself in shadows and missing some of the clever details built into the second act set. But Reeve's design boasts one beautiful touch: tiny glittering fairy lights that blink on whenever the immortal sisters grace the stage. The golden twinkles almost compensate for the ladies' visual dullness.
Larry Anhorn's choreography works well for the men, carried out with pizazz by Weinberg-Harter and two Lords (Michael Cox and John Greyshak) in their comic "He Who Shies at Such a Prize."
"Iolanthe" is one of the local company's best, highly recommended for a delightful evening of song and satire. If the troupe maintains this level of performance quality, perhaps its financial circumstances will improve--with San Diego receiving the ultimate benefit.
"IOLANTHE" Lyrics by W.S. Gilbert. Music by Arthur S. Sullivan. Directed by Welton Jones. Musical director is Hollace Koman. Choreography by Larry Anhorn. Set design by N. Dixon Fish. Costumes by Gordon J. Lusk. Lighting design by Tim Reeve. Revised dialogue and lyrics by John Elsom. Starring Patricia McAfee, Algene Adams, Lee Vahlsing, Shari Milow-Ferrelli, George Weinberg-Harter, Michael Cox, John Greyshak, Joseph Craiger, Lynn Kerr, Robin Gillette. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m., through Sunday at Casa del Prado Theatre, Balboa Park. Produced by the San Diego Gilbert & Sullivan Company.