SAN DIEGO — "The Gondoliers" may wrap itself up in true Gilbert and Sullivan fashion over the confusion of an unidentified king, but it's the music, not the story, that reigns supreme in the San Diego Gilbert & Sullivan Company production that opened in Balboa Park last weekend.
The operetta was directed by D'Oyly Carte (Opera Company) veteran Kenneth Sandford with a warm feeling for the subtleties of W.S. Gilbert's humor. It lilts through the typical quotient of mixed identities and happy endings on a gentle wave of Arthur S. Sullivan's melting melodies.
This time the setting is Venice, a sunny (thanks to designer Tim Reeve's warm, yellow lighting), happy locale where even the Grand Inquisitor seems harmless in his silly rolled cardboard hat, and where babies are kidnaped for their own protection, then mixed and matched by a well-intentioned nurse, and marriage is undertaken at infancy.
Once again a delightful G&S world rolls out for our amusement. The mixed up babies, now grown into two healthy, handsome, politely musical gondoliers--objects of mass infatuation by the inevitable chorus of colorfully bustled and skirted young ladies--make a very difficult choice. Just one wife apiece, thank you.
No sooner are the brothers married than complications arrive in the person of the kidnaper, an overly protective Grand Inquisitor who sought to preserve the Catholic monarchy of Barataria. He brings wonderful and terrible news.
One of our gondoliers is the unknown king (but which?), and thus already married at birth to Casilda, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro. So one of the brothers has now committed bigamy, whichever one he might be, and the lady by his side (whichever lady) is neither wife nor queen.
The temporary solutions and resolutions of this dilemma unfold Gilbert's object of comic laceration: trendy fascinations with the principles of human equality.
Sandford's staging is colorful, precisely balanced and noticeably understated. The few comic bits allowed the cast are that much more fun because they are not ladled thickly over Gilbert's wit and Sullivan's songs.
With no overly busy distractions, we are free to revel in the music, letting the harmonies of chorus, soloists and orchestra soak in and work their rejuvenescent magic. Musical director and conductor Gary Holt carries his heavy responsibility well. Aurally, the production soars.
William Nolan and Glenn J. Fernandez-D'Abreo, as gondoliers Guiseppe and Marco, are fine, upstanding examples of good Venetian breeding. They sing nicely, too.
Lisbeth Abramson amuses and sings deliciously as gondolier wife Tessa, and Shari Milow-Ferrelli, as wife Gianetta, does likewise, although she seems less sincere.
Phillip L. Green is adequate as the Duke of Plaza-Toro, but tends to get mired in the ponderous British accent set out for him. Marion Davidson, as the Duchess, tries to follow Green's imperious intonations with even less success.
But the insistence on very British English works well overall, setting off another layer of cleverness, with all these Italians and Spaniards and "Baratarians" speaking as though they'd just left the club.
Kellie Evans-O'Connor and Lee Vahlsing share the most beautiful duets as lovers Casilda and Luiz, and J. Stephen Hubbard is the most fun as Don Alhambra del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor.
The chorus of Contadine (women) and Gondolieri (men) move beautifully through James C. Manley's choreography, but, alas, their so very important lyrics are practically impossible to decipher.
J. Sherwood Montgomery's set is simple but sufficient for the Venetian Piazzetta of the first act. But his Baratarian palace pavilion of the second act seems more African than Mediterranean with its black and gold patterned panels.
Gordon J. Lusk's and Cindy J. Cetinske's costumes are a mix of bright and dull colors, with lots of Christmas tree trim on the royal attire.
Visiting director Sandford has demonstrated something here that the San Diego company might want to consider in the future. Genius is already written into script and score of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. A subtle but loving hand can bring it into full bloom with the gentlest artistic nudges.
"The Gondoliers" is refreshingly simple under Sandford's guidance, and no G&S fan should miss it.
"THE GONDOLIERS" Words by W.S. Gilbert. Music by Arthur S. Sullivan. Directed by Kenneth Sandford. Conductor/Musical Director, Gary Holt. Choreography, James C. Manley. Set design, J. Sherwood Montgomery. Costume design/coordination, Gordon J. Lusk and Cindy J. Cetinske. Lighting design, Tim Reeve. With Vicki Pierce, Michael Cox, Patricia McAfee, John-Scott Moir, Robin Gillette, Joseph Grienenberger, Glenn J. Fernandez-D'Abreo, William Nolan, Lisbeth Abramson, Shari Milow-Ferrelli, Phillip L. Green, Marion Davidson, Kellie Evans-O'Connor, Lee Vahlsing, J. Stephen Hubbard, Donna O'Connell. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Casa del Prado Theatre, Balboa Park. Produced by the San Diego Gilbert & Sullivan Company.