The Publick Theatre opened its season in the beautiful outdoor amphitheater on the banks of the Charles River with one of the less frequently produced of the Gilbert and Sullivan Savoy operas, "The Yeomen of the Guard". The moated island that is the theatre's natural setting is perfect for designer Brent Wachter's shining Classics Illustrated version of the grim Tower of London, and it is also perfect for a full day family outing that begins with a volleyball game or a picnic in Herter Park and segues into a lovely show, certain to please young and old. This particular operetta seems to carry somewhat of a reputation for being "difficult". But although G & S themselves thought of their accomplishment in "Yeoman" as more serious and grand than the sparkling comedies that parody sentimental drama and mock at political and moral posturing, in fact "Yeomen" 's long-ago-and-far-away narrative may make it the most accessible of the G&S works today. Gilbert's book and lyrics for "The Yeomen of the Guard" filtered from the Elizabethan background everything unacceptable to the Victorian sensibility, and the author resisted the temptation to layer his words with his trademark satiric stabs at contemporary targets. You don't have to know anything much about either Queen Elizabeth's London or W.S. Gilbert's to appreciate "Yeoman". The first and probably the most important thing to say about a good production of "the Yeomen of the Guard" -- and the Publick's production is very very good-- is that it is perfectly in tune with the sensibility of preadolescent boys. I took two of them with me, one just turned nine and one ten-almost-eleven, having a pretty good idea that the team's tale of daring-do and dungeons, with its dollops of gallows humor, its stirring tunes and sweet harmony, and its simple-hearted sentimentality would score a hit with the young set. Did it ever!
It is usually impossible to summarize a Gilbert plot. Quibble and coincidence rule, and a sublime silliness paired with Sullivan's light-hearted harmonies settles everything satisfactorily. In the case of "Yeomen", however, the plot isn't a commentary on then-current fashions in manners and morals. The disguises and rescues and reversals and even the sick jokes of the piece are all of the sort that is still current in subliterary narratives: Saturday morning cartoons, animated features, "Star Wars". Colonel Fairfax (Bill Monnen, a brave and handsome tenor) has been convicted of sorcery though the treachery of his cousin and heir, and is to be beheaded in the Tower. Fairfax asks the Lieutenant of the Tower (Geoffrey Burns) to find him a woman willing to marry him in jail so that his evil cousin won't inherit his property-- the woman's reward will be a hundred crowns and instant widowhood in which to enjoy the money. The Lieutenant recruits Elsie Maynard, (Sarah Reese) an impoverished "good girl" of seventeen who ekes out a living performing with the traveling entertainer, Jack Point (Bob Jolly). Elsie is led blindfolded to the Fairfax's cell while Jack is offered a job as jester by the Lieutenant. Phoebe Meryll (Wendy Heyman) and her father the Sergeant (Job Emerson) decide to effect a last-minute rescue Fairfax by passing him off as Phoebe's brother Leonard, (Jeffrey Kimball Clark, able in this and a passel of other small roles) who is joining the Yeomen Guards but is not yet known to them by sight. Phoebe charms the key to Fairfax's cell from the smitten brute of a jailer, Wilfred Shadbolt (William Gardiner) and along with her father embraces Fairfax, dressed in Leonard's uniform, as Meryll's son. As "Leonard", Fairfax announces his own escape, whereupon Jack Point realizes to his dismay that instead of being a well-dowered and eligible widow, his Elsie is now firmly married to a fugitive from the law. The second act untangles all this and provides a happy-ish ending for all but poor Jack Point.
The boys pronounced the Publick's show "awesome", "terrific" "the best", and are already plaguing their mothers to take them back to see it over again. They adored the Tower of London set, (thank you stage managers Laurie Light and Cori Buell, for allowing the boys to climb the Tower stairs after the show for a thrilling peek at the innards of the hero's prison cell). They cheered at the march of the Guard in their bright red Beefeater uniforms, squealed in joy at the sight of their glittering weapons-- especially the headsman's ax--all of which seemed quite familiar to them from TV and video games. That was about what I expected. Of course, the exquisite melting madrigal that wrung my heart was lost on them. But what was surprising was that they adored the Bob Jolly's Jack Point, the down at the heels jester who is at the heart of the story though only on the periphery of the plot. Jack's tired old jokes, his little dance routines, his puppet-play with his jester's bauble, his commedia slapstick, -- they found them all were enchanting. And Jack's final gesture of despair blew them away--- all they could talk about for an hour after the show ended was how much they wanted to meet the awesome actor who played the jester, and ask him for his autograph. They had to be dragged away from the theatre. When he isn't starring in or directing productions, Jolly sometimes hires himself out to entertain at children's parties. Those fortunate kids must have a memorable occasion.
I was enchanted, too, though my favorite parts and the kids' differed some. Jonathan Goldberg is a master musician, who brings out the best in his singers both individually and in ensemble. Goldberg isn't satisfied with accuracy of pitch and beautiful tone, either-- each word must be clear and proceed from a distinct and particular emotional impulse. Though my perfectionist's wish list for "Yeoman-- or for any of Sullivan's gorgeous scores-- might include a larger male chorus and a full orchestra, I found the acting and musicality of the Public's production a pure joy to see. I missed the Sudbury SavoyardsÕ reportedly engaging production of "Yeomen" last season, and earlier performances have faded from my memory-- from those I retain only a faint feeling of having been a tad confused, a wee bit bored, along about the middle of the second act. But there was no let down at the Publick. Sarah Reese, whose silver voice and golden presence made even that half-wit Patience tolerable at the Publick last year, was a dazzling heroine. She was all sweetness, sensitivity and light, and earned the amendment often made in her last (originally heartless) lyric. It took no stretch of the imagination to believe that in her company rich man or poor man, soldier or clown, would be as happy as his own nature would ever allow him to be. Alas that in Jack Point's case happiness is naturally out of the question. But Fairfax could not help but love this Elsie truly, even on scant and commercial acquaintance. With Reese at the center, all the romantic elements fell into place. Bob Jolly, coupling directing with his own star turn in the old actor-manager tradition, has had the pluck, luck and skill to surrounded himself with a vivid supporting cast who do him proud.