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G&S: nostalgic fun?

January 15, 2010

Last night I attended NYGASP’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore at City Center. My friend Brooke was  performing as one of the bridesmaids. Going in, I was wondering what kind of company it is, what are the production values, could I fit in there? And of course, I would get to see my friend and have a few laughs.

A few years ago, I played one of the daughters in Pirates of Penzance. It was a wonderful experience for many reasons. It was the first time I was really paid for a role, and we did around 50 shows, so it gave me a feel for how a long run goes. You need stamina, you need to keep it fresh each time you go out there. Some days you don’t feel like doing it, but you must anyway. As the cast gets weary, people start to play pranks, like trying to make you laugh onstage at inappropriate moments. You bond with everyone and you spend a heck of a lot of time together.

There was always something weird about that show. For me, and probably for anyone who saw it. In that story, all the women except for Ruth are supposed to be the Major General’s daughters. We had a running joke about how I was his illegitimate daughter from when he was serving in Asia. Haha.

Last night, I very much enjoyed the show. It was charming and quite funny and witty. There was lots of dancing, which was a pleasant surprise. I had never seen Ruddigore before, so there was that lovely newness of seeing something for the first time, of hearing the jokes and the music for the first time.

Yet, very soon into act I, I realized that all the bridesmaids (female chorus) were white. And not only white, but many were very blonde. Brooke actually stood out (though perhaps it was because I was looking for her as one does when one goes to see a friend) because she was one of the brunettes. I was a little disappointed. I was sitting in a theatre full of G&S devotees, watching a good production hitting all the right marks, but I was disappointed because I didn’t see a place there for me. When the male chorus came onstage, there was one Asian guy and one black guy. And they blended a bit more because I didn’t know them, but they still stood out. I was unconvinced.

As the story progressed, I found half of my brain enjoying the jocularity, the physical comedy, and the witty dialogue while the other half cringed that there was no woman to root for. Everyone is a stock character because it’s a farce, from the voice type and quality to the “look.” The female lead was an idiot because she was written that way. It was so politically incorrect in an outdated, rather than edgy, way. The one anachronistic joke they inserted fell flat for me because it brought the whole thing into our time, and drove home the inconceivable injustices of G&S’s Britain. It made it harder for me to accept the jokes and fun as innocent because the juxtaposition of a modern reference highlighted the fact that it was being performed now, not then, and we know better.

There is something to be said for the survival of art. Works that last are clearly noteworthy. And English opera can’t hold a flame to Italian or German. I understand why it’s special to have works in your native tongue. But the passion for these particular works strikes me as odd. It feels similar to the nostalgia people feel for 1950s America. It’s not real, and to ignore all the ugly bits feels wrong.

I was struggling with why I wasn’t having more fun. Then I decided it was OK that I wasn’t, and perhaps it would be odd if I came out gushing about it. There are so many other places and pieces for me to sing, I don’t need to get hung up on this. It was not a bad way to spend a few hours (though I thought act I was a bit too long), but I don’t think I’ll be doing any more G&S myself. I guess I better remove “Poor Wandr’ing One” from my repertoire, though I do get a kick out of it. I’ll not go so far as to delete my recording of Pirates from my iTunes. After all, what whoever said his favorite work was whatever he was working on now holds true for me, so Pirates will always hold a special place in my heart.

If G&S is your thing, you should catch NYGASP this weekend. They do a very nice job, and it’s exactly what you think it will be. The singing is good, the dancing is lovely, the comedy is well-timed, and the technical stuff all works as it should. The amplification was a little wonky when people were kneeling close to the floor mics, but it was never boomy or too tinny, and there was not one instance of feedback. This company knows what it’s doing, and they do it well.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Julia Bates permalink
    January 17, 2010 8:27 pm

    Would you do the G&S that is Asian? I forget the title. Or would that be too self reflective/emperical?

    Had a chance to sing in a choir at the national cathedral yesterday. Remembered how much fun it was to be in a large group (14 altos!) with a very professional conductor.

    Carrying a flu or cold today. Blah. Julia

    • Betsy permalink*
      January 19, 2010 10:48 am

      I haven’t seen The Mikado, but from what I know of it, it might be the one G&S show that I wouldn’t want to do. A Korean making fun of the Japanese just seems wrong. Playing characters of other Asian countries doesn’t appeal. It seems like there should be plenty of performers of whatever race/gender/nationality to fill those roles that a casting director needn’t go with someone who can pass. It’s why I disagreed with the casting of non-Chinese actors in The Joy Luck Club, and non-Japanese actors in Memoirs of a Geisha. I know Hollywood has to leverage star-power, but it irked me that they felt they couldn’t find suitable talent of the appropriate heritage.

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