REVIEW: Sprites and Satire at the Mendelssohn: UMGASS’s Iolanthe

In the director’s note for Robyn Tierney’s UMGASS production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, she says “I could have manifested my own creative expression into the delivery of the show, but I believe Gilbert and Sullivan had enough creative expression of their own; mine would only complicate things…I would present Iolanthe in a more traditional environment, one that captures the original brilliance and wit of our two theatrical heroes.” It’s a long-running debate in the world of repertory-based music-theatre: should the director preserve “traditional” practices and try to produce the piece as it would have been on the night it premiered, or should they go in an uncommon direction to try and bring out an aspect of the work that has hitherto gone unnoticed by past interpreters? Directors who pursue either approach run the risk of losing sight of the paying public and alienating audiences. The traditionalist can present a performance that is pedantically attentive to the practices of a bygone age, and thus of interest only to historians. The nontraditionalist can craft an interpretation so radically different that the meaning of the piece is lost, and confuses both newcomers and audience members familiar with the piece. It takes a director with a strong sense of the heart of a particular theatrical work to bring any production to life, “traditional” or not.

Thankfully, Tierney understands Iolanthe very well. She brings out the edgy irony of the piece with aplomb, while not neglecting the slightly mystical unearthliness. This production of Iolanthe is the best kind of Gilbert and Sullivan production, one that has all of the charm and none of the quaintness, decidedly Victorian in atmosphere but with the slightest pinch of 21st-century irreverence.

A good supplement to Tierney’s traditionalist cause is the fact that Iolanthe is a Gilbert and Sullivan work that has aged reasonably well. The trademark Gilbertian social satire is simultaneously biting and absurd (although rather less subtle than in, say, The Mikado), with a plot concerning a painfully idiotic House of Peers having their political powers taken away by a crew of vengeful fairies. The jibes about the folly of having politicians vote based on which party they belong to, rather than what they personally believe, seem particularly pertinent in today’s political climate.

The cast, as per usual with UMGASS, gave thoroughly intelligent and charming portrayals of their characters. The two ensembles in particular brought everything that was needed. Each member of the House of Peers, plus the Lord Chancellor (Don Regan), brought a definite and different brand of buffoonery to each individual part, from Jon Roselle’s obsequious Lord Tolloller to Don Regan’s alternatingly intellectual and befuddled Lord Chancellor. The fairies were exceedingly animated and characterful as well, graceful and sardonic in equal measure. The contrast between the sassy sprites and the blustering bluebloods was terrific to watch. Amanda O’Toole brought a noble bearing and a truly glorious contralto voice to the role of the Fairy Queen. Joshua Glassman combined a gleefully goofy demeanor and a sterling tenor voice in his portrayal of Strephon. Alexandria Strother, as Phyllis, delivered her dialogue with a strikingly naturalistic bent and her lyrics with a pristine soprano tone. Tina Pandya’s choreography was exceedingly well-suited to the music and lyrics: very merry, somewhat silly and occasionally even witty, not something easy to pull off with dance. Not to be discounted are the lovely costumes by Marilyn Gouin and Tam Prentice, which clearly defined the personalities and stations of the various characters with economy and beauty. Also to be commended are the lovely sets designed by Cynthia Lempert and Laura Strowe, evoking the Arcadian environs of the fairies in the first act and creating a picturesque nighttime view of the London skyline in the second.

One minor quibble I had concerned the delivery of some of the lines. Gilbert’s deliberately arch and verbose style, while effective in its time at lampooning the artificial stage conceits that Gilbert so despised, needs a little something extra to come off properly today. The words, while extremely eloquent and clever, ought to be “sold” a little in order to come off properly; this is especially true in the long and intricate passages of dialogue delineating the paradoxes and puzzles of logic that were Gilbert’s forte. It’s a delicate balance, for if the lines or lyrics are too heavily exaggerated, then the wit is lost; however, if they are said too plainly, the import of the words is easy to miss. There should be just the slightest splash of Technicolor in the delivery, just a little something extra to make the words truly register. For the most part, the cast did very well at keeping this balance. Two cast members in particular achieved this clarity through very different methods: Glassman delivered his lines with a delightful silliness that somehow felt perfectly natural, stopping just short of too much; Regan spoke his lines with pinpoint diction and a terrific sense of timing, pausing ever so slightly in his monologues to give the jokes just enough time to set in before moving on. Still, there were a few occasions where some lines that ought to have won gleeful guffaws ended up getting a bit lost, receiving only a smattering of chuckles. But this was only the first night—now that the cast has played to a full audience, hopefully they will be able to easily find their oratorical bearings.

If you are looking to introduce yourself to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, Iolanthe might be one of the best ones to see first. It has all the hallmarks of the Gilbert and Sullivan style in full effect: intricate absurdity wedded with music of beautiful sprightliness (ably conducted by music director Matthew Balmer and performed by the orchestra, which has too many members to name here). If that sounds at all appealing to you, Iolanthe will more than likely be well worth your time.

Iolanthe is running December 7-8 at 8:00 P.M. and December 8-9 at 2:00 P.M. at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. Tickets are available at

One thought to “REVIEW: Sprites and Satire at the Mendelssohn: UMGASS’s Iolanthe”

  1. From the “No such thing as bad publicity as long as they spell your name correctly” department: Joshua Glassman’s name was misspelled the first time in your article as “Glassen.” Fortunately, you correctly spelled it the second time.

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