Reviewed by G.L. Horton
The Huntington Theatre's "Iolanthe" is the ideal tonic for the midwinter blahs. It's worth shoveling out and sloshing through sleet and slush to dwell for an hour or two in such enchanting company. The mere sight of designer James Joy's fairy grove, all shimmering with Pre-Raphaelite color, is as good as a vacation. And from the moment the first dainty but decadent little fairy trips out from behind a vine-laden tree, the smiles stop only when exploding into laughter. Who could resist these gossamer creatures, costumed and wigged by Mariann Verheyan to storybook perfection, perpetually seventeen and perpetually singing the spicy verses of W.S. Gilbert and dancing to the sprightly melodies of Arthur Sullivan? These fairies are sublime because they, and their wings and Tales, are silly beyond description.
You see, this particular fairy band is mourning the absence of their sister Iolanthe (Ann Kitteredge), reluctantly banished by the Queen (Patti Allison) after she, in defiance of Fairy Law, married a mortal. The Queen summons Iolanthe from the frog pond that has been her damp prison for the past 25 years, and learns that the erring fairy has not only married, but become a mother. Iolanthe's son, Strephon (Robert Gallagher), who is half fairy ---the upper half--and half human-- the lower -- has grown to manhood and pledged his love to Phyllis (Cheryl Martin), a ward in chancery. Strephon's suit has been denied by the Lord Chancellor (Ed Dixon) , who is determined to bestow his ward on one of the peers of the House of Lords -- all of whom are smitten with her. But first, the "very susceptible" Lord Chancellor must resist his disgraceful urge to marry his ward himself.
The redoubtable Queen of the Fairies promises to do her best to aid the charming young man in his love affair-- charming young men and love affairs are among the fairies' favorite things. When the peers refuse to comply with her wishes, the Queen vows vengeance, going so far as to arrange for Strephon to be elected to Parliament and magically causing all his proposed bills to pass, including the one that will replace the British peerage with a meritocracy based on examination. What could be sillier than that? The second act!
Larry Carpenter has assembled an ideal cast, in everything except numbers. "Iolanthe" involves a half dozen couples and two choruses. Miraculously, in the director's mix of opera and musical theatre talents, everyone sounds glorious, looks gorgeous, and can act, too. The Huntington's half dozen couples are dazzling; individually and as an ensemble, but even with electronic assistance they cannot be themselves and both choruses at the same time. Visually, the company almost pulls the stunt off. Daniel Pelzig's clever choreography fills the stage to overflowing with energy and charm. Still, six peers don't add up to a procession, and four fairies aren't a bevy. Music director Stan Tucker has dealt with his reduced forces by cleverly transposing some of the parts, which works well except at that point when roof-raising thunder is called for -- that "tan-ta-ra" procession, and the first and second act finales.
Too bad the audience can't help them out, there. The spirit of delight in this production is so infectious, it's hard to contain the urge to dance and sing along.