A play isn’t really worth seeing without a compelling love hexagon, overt romantic tension à la eye gazing and cheek grazing and catchy operatic tunes that never detract from the piece’s subtle humour. Thankfully, writer W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan’s 1889 play The Gondoliers recreated by McGill’s Savoy Society offers exactly that.
The show is comprised of 33 carefully-selected triple threats that propel the plot forward through a blend of opera and acting, their fervour driven by what seems like either adrenaline or a 14-hour sleep and six-packs of Redbull. This non-profit student-run show prances, leaps and twirls around the satirical notions of hierarchy, identity and social status in 1750s Venice, complete with a few valuable lessons that could easily apply today.
The production opens with the orchestra’s energetic, perky symphony that hints at what’s to come: a play that tells the tale of a duke’s daughter named Casilda (Chelsea Mahan) who was arranged to be wed when she was six months old to the Prince of Venice. Only after she has blossomed into a fully grown woman, already in love with her servant, does her family inform her of her imminent fixed marriage.
Just as you think it couldn’t get any more dramatic, no one can identify who the prince actually is. When he was a baby, he was entrusted to a gondolier for safety reasons, and the gondolier, being a drunkard, mixed up the prince with his own son. They suspected that the prince’s title belonged to either Marco (Stephen Baker/Ilir Orana) or Giuseppe (Mathew Galloway), two handsome gondoliers who happen to have gotten married merely minutes before. The Grand Inquisitor (Scott Cope/Robert O’Brien) then chose to treat them equally in order to resolve the conundrum and determine the real prince’s identity.
Miranda Tuwaig, who enthralled the audience as Fiametta with an operatic falsetto solo that kicked off the show, was especially appreciative of the initiatives that went into this year’s production. “Because of the [MUNACA strike], you couldn’t book rooms at McGill on the weekends, so we had to scrounge around for affordable places near downtown and pay for them with our budget,” she said. “We had rehearsals on Friday nights, but everyone was so dedicated.”
The cast members’ dedication was an infectious force that permeated into the work of the volunteered coaches. Nicole Rainteau was to thank for the play’s choreography, as the dances seemed to require a certain element of athleticism and grace that was not present in last year’s Pirates of Penzance. “I’m trained in jazz, ballet and contemporary,” Rainteau said, “so I just meshed it all together. You’ll also see some ballroom in there.”
With over 10 hours a week dedicated to dance drills alone, each cast member looked particularly svelte in their authentic Venetian get-ups. The billowy cinched-at-the-waist dresses created the iconic curvy silhouettes that really take you back in time and out of McGill’s Moyse Hall.
Stage manager Emma McQueen had an idea as to why this show was more successful than its predecessors at the Savoy Society. “We’re trying something different where we do a bit of mic-ing so that you can hear everyone better,” she explained. “I think it’s working out and making a big difference.”
The cast’s enthusiasm and audio-enhancing sound system didn’t exactly make for a stage-friendly combination, according to producer Tabia Lau. “The only thing I would change is the mics because everyone was so loud and excited backstage that I was worried you’d be able to hear them from the audience,” she said.
In the midst of all the animated dialogue, the pitter-patter of jazz shoes as they marched and stomped through numbers, and the dynamic orchestra that weaved in and out of scenes, not a peep backstage seeped out into the theatre. Your attention is captivated solely by what’s happening on stage, and is in fact, distributed equally among the characters. “The cool thing is that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote [The Gondoliers] so that not one part would stand out, so it gives equal opportunity for every cast member to showcase their talent,” said Rachel Koffman who played Inez, the nurse foster mother who makes a chilling yet effective fashionably-late entrance in the piece.
The Gondoliers may not exactly embody the saying “brevity is the soul of the wit,” but in its defence, sharp humour and grandiose numbers require time to perfect.
Catch The Gondoliers Feb. 16, 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. at McGill’s Moyse Hall (853 Sherbrooke St. W.) Student tickets are $12. For reservations go to www.mcgillsavoy.ca.