By Nan Lincoln
Special to The Ellsworth American
ELLSWORTH — Hearing the singing upstairs at the Moore Center, it was impossible not to smile. Members of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Maine were in the midst of rehearsing a jolly chorus number from their new production of “The Gondoliers,” which opens at The Grand on Friday, Feb. 7.
I smiled because they sounded great and reminded me of the first G&S show I attended some 43 years ago, when the company made its maiden voyage with this same operetta about amorous activity and other shenanigans in Venice.
That show was the start of a long and illustrious musical journey that has won the local company many fans and awards and taken them as far as Buxton, England, the land of Mssrs. Gilbert & Sullivan. It was in Buxton that the little upstart company from coastal Maine absconded with top honors at an international competition.
Approaching the second-floor rehearsal room, I was reasonably certain I could hear the voices of some of the men and women who had performed in that first show and/or dozens of other performances since.
Yup, there they were: Irv Hodgkin, who sports his G&S-style whiskers year-round, Roland Dube, Sandra Blanchette, Debra Hangge, Dotti Schaller, among other recognizable voices and faces. I was also pleased to see Joe Marshall, who didn’t show up until the 1990s, but was clearly born to play the pompous royalty, delightfully dithery generals and other G&S stock characters. And then there’s Aiden Pasha, who has been performing in the shows since he graduated from MDI High School some eight or nine years ago, I believe, and just gets better and better each year.
Most of the old-timers are considerably grayer now (as am I) but are still able to belt out a G&S tune with perfect pitch and enunciation or deliver a cloaked insult or witty bon mot with the flash and prick of a snickersnee.
Upon entering the rehearsal space, it wasn’t just seeing these operetta vets that kept the grin on my face, but the number of new faces and voices in the room, many of whom likely won’t see their first gray hair for a good while. This includes the director, Dorothy Wheatcraft, who is expecting a baby in the spring. Although she has performed with the company, it is only her second time directing for the Society. Her directorial debut was last year’s fun and flighty “Iolanthe.”
This year she has a little more experience maneuvering a cast of about 30 or so about a stage. And she’s been to Venice, where “The Gondoliers” is largely set.
“I’ve seen the hustle and bustle of those narrow Venetian streets and alleys,” Wheatcraft said, “and how, because the citizens live so closely in their neighborhoods, they all know each other. That’s what I’m trying to recreate here — the closeness and familiarity.”
Through her research she has estimated the operetta’s setting as between 1848 and 1868, which has given her a good sense of the mix of academic, commercial and aristocratic folk who populated Venice at that time. This will be costume designer Stephanie Farqhar-Dumas’s challenge to realize. Wheatcraft also has collaborated extensively with set designer Peter Miller to recreate the Venice she remembers.
So, while the story about switched royal identities, star-crossed love, political and palace intrigue is pretty darn far-fetched, she insists that the Venetian setting rings true. She allows for a few more flights of imagination for the second location — the fictional kingdom Barataria which, from lines in the play, she imagines as a temperate place with open spaces and Grecian architecture.
“I dig contrast” she says, “and I want to make it quite stark here between the closeness of Venice to the openness of Barataria.”
As important as the look of the thing is, Wheatcraft knows that not paying attention to the details of a performance can push an audience right out of the place and moment that she is trying to create for them.
“One of my pet peeves is if actors seem to be disengaged from the action — just standing around between their own songs,” she says.
“I like to give the chorus plenty do to keep them engaged, figure out who they each are, what their role in this society is — fishmonger, student, courtier, shopkeeper — then behave accordingly even when they’re not in the spotlight.”
An extra challenge in this play is the multiple leads — a couple of wannabe princes, their wives, a reluctant princess, and her parents, a secret lover and a scattering of court officials and such. She says she’s thankful for the depth of talent she has to work with here and has a clear vision for each of their personalities, which she discusses with the actors.
The Grand Inquisitor, for instance should be charming and affable but have steely interior “a sword wrapped in velvet,” whilst the Duke of Del Toro is just the opposite, a severe and pompous exterior with a soul of mush.
But she leaves the matter of how the actors, Aiden Pasha and Roland Dube, reveal these traits, letting them know in the moment what works and what needs improvement.
Each of these actors shows how successfully they have managed this, when Pasha enters a scene with a booming baritone greeting that makes everyone want to shout out “Norm!” Or in another number when Dube turns into a cringing milquetoast while his wife, the queen (Sandra Blanchette), makes it clear who wears the pantaloons in the family.
For all the latitude she gives her actors to create their own characters, Wheatcraft is a decidedly hands-on director, stopping the action frequently to tweak this or that in either the blocking or emphasis.
That each scene improves under her touch is a tribute to her skill, yes, but also to the seasoned G&S vets who may have performed these roles many times and yet are willing to listen to and take direction from a young woman who worked her way up from the chorus and just may have something new to teach them.
“The Gondoliers” will be performed with a full orchestra, directed by Rebecca Edmondson, for two weekends, starting Friday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m. The Friday shows (Feb. 7 and 14) are at 7 p.m. and the Saturday and Sunday shows (Feb. 8, 9, 15, 16) are at 2 p.m. Tickets are on sale at The Grand box office (667-9500) or online at www.grandonline.org. Tickets are $20 for adults and seniors and $5 students (18 and under).