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Valley Life | SPOTLIGHT

Fans Stage a Tribute to the Songs of Gilbert & Sullivan

May 05, 2000|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN

If the movie "Topsy-Turvy" left you hungry for more Gilbert & Sullivan, you have a chance to satisfy your yen this weekend with "Gilbert & Sullivan at the Mayflower Club."

Produced and directed by Kate Springthorpe, the show features 26 songs from 11 of the Victorian geniuses' comic operettas, linked by a series of short scenes. All but one of the linkages was written by Kate's husband, Michael Springthorpe. The sole exception is the work of Mr. Gilbert himself.

"I have such a passion for Gilbert & Sullivan, and I wanted to share it with the Mayflower Club," Kate explains. The club, in North Hollywood, is an ideal venue for a show about two very British gentlemen who took the raw material of Victorian culture and spun it into entertainment gold.

More than 2,000 British Angelenos belong to the Mayflower, so it's a safe bet some audience members will be able to hum a few bars of such G & S gems as "Buttercup" from "H.M.S. Pinafore." After all, most club members are so British they understand what's going on at a cricket match, a passion almost as difficult for non-Brits to fathom as why anyone would call a foodstuff toad-in-the-hole.

From families of musicians, the Toluca Lake couple grew up listening to Gilbert & Sullivan, although not on the same continent (she's from the Midwest, he's from Australia). But Kate says her ardor deepened six or seven years ago when she saw top-notch productions of several of their operettas, including "The Gondoliers" and "Trial by Jury," at the Ambassador Auditorium, a now closed venue in Pasadena.

'A 19th Century Monty Python'

Like the critics, Kate adored "Topsy-Turvy"--Mike Leigh's 1999 film about the near breakup of the team and the subsequent creation of "The Mikado." Nominated for Best Screenplay and three other Oscars, the movie was ultimately honored for its costume design and makeup. Kate was sufficiently taken with the movie to see it three times, heroic even for a G & S addict, given its near three-hour length.

More remarkably, she and Michael have both seen another, hard-to-find film about the duo--"The Story of Gilbert & Sullivan." That 1953 British biopic stars Robert Morley as W.S. Gilbert, the impossibly clever writer, and Maurice Evans as Arthur Sullivan, the greatly talented composer. Peter Finch plays Richard D'Oyly Carte, the theatrical impresario who realized that Gilbert and Sullivan were made for each other despite their divergent personalities.

Kate and Michael are both singers and actors, among other things, and are in the show. Michael plays Gilbert, the family man of the pair, while Trevor Roper plays the roguish Sullivan. Offstage, both men are on the Mayflower Club cricket team.

Other cast members include veteran actor Jim Sandy, whose big songs include "A Wandering Minstrel, I." A soprano, Kate gave herself such choice numbers as "Darwinian Man" from "Princess Ida." But she ceded the hauntingly beautiful "The Sun Whose Rays" from "The Mikado" to another soprano, Gail Reilly. Nine of the 12 cast members are also members of the Mayflower Club.

Kate is quick to point out that the show is "definitely not 'Topsy-Turvy.' " Indeed the project gave Michael the opportunity to incorporate facts other than the ones that underlie Leigh's version. Among them: that while Sullivan certainly loved women and gambling in Monte Carlo, he was also a tender uncle to the orphans of his beloved brother Frederic, who died in 1861, leaving behind seven children and a pregnant widow. Sullivan even trekked to far-off California to see them, thrilling American journalists in the process.

"I've always admired Gilbert's wordsmithery and Sullivan's melodies," Michael says. He is struck with how shrewdly they observed and satirized human behavior without being vicious. In a way, he says, "I think of them as being a 19th century Monty Python."

Bringing Out the Other's Best

Sullivan was a musical prodigy, Michael points out, who sang a solo at the christening of one of Queen Victoria's numerous children. A serious composer, he had already written such popular works as "Onward, Christian Soldiers" when he began his long, unlikely collaboration with Gilbert.

Michael thinks Gilbert's great gift to Sullivan was tempering a tendency toward sentimentality reflected in "The Lost Chord," the song he wrote to eulogize his brother, a member of the D'Oyly Carte company. And the witty, sometimes achingly beautiful music magically transformed and extended Gilbert's librettos.

Michael thinks too much is made of the fact that two men whose names will eternally be linked with an ampersand were not "mates." They had enormous respect for each other's talent, he says, "and their affinity was the work."

The show includes selections from all their operettas except the rarely performed "Thespis," "The Grand Duke" and "Utopia Limited." It will be done in costume, with sets, one sporting a gondola Kate had specially built.

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"Gilbert & Sullivan at the Mayflower Club" will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. The club is at 11110 Victory Blvd., North Hollywood. Call (818) 760-9367 for ticket information.

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Spotlight runs each Friday. Patricia Ward Biederman can be reached at valley.news@latimes.com.

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