2012-10-11 / On the Town

‘Grand Duke’ is grand fun

By Cary Ginell

ENGAGEMENT—Grand Duke Rudolph (Don Warrick) and Baroness von Krakenfeldt (Sydney Solomon), muse on their upcoming nuptials in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Grand Duke.” ENGAGEMENT—Grand Duke Rudolph (Don Warrick) and Baroness von Krakenfeldt (Sydney Solomon), muse on their upcoming nuptials in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Grand Duke.” Play review

‘The Grand Duke’

Leave it to Gilbert and Sullivan to come up with yet another skewering of political and sociological conventions, coming just in time for Election Day.

“The Grand Duke,” the venerable pair’s 14th and final collaboration, was a financial failure when it made its debut in 1896 (Gilbert himself called it “that ugly, misshapen little brat”), and it disappeared from the professional repertory.

Even after it was exhumed in 1975, its infrequent performances have attracted sharp-tongued barbs from critics who labeled the opera “justly neglected” and “not even half-baked.”

The intrepid stalwarts at the Ventura County Gilbert and Sullivan Repertory Company were undeterred by such tepid notices and have fashioned a stellar production of the opera, now playing at the Hillcrest Theater of the Arts.

Although not nearly as famous as its celebrated relatives “The Mikado” and “The Pirates of Penzance,” “The Grand Duke” nonetheless has its moments, the opportunity to hear the last vestiges of Gilbert and Sullivan’s genius chief among them.

The story takes G&S’s first work, “Thespis,” which had a similar theme, full circle, featuring multiple engagements, an O. Henry plot device, and a neatly wrapped-up package at the end.

The members of an acting troupe are conspiring to overthrow Rudolph, the Grand Duke of Pfennig-Halbfennig. Ludwig, the company’s comedian, inadvertently reveals the plan to the royal detective, and the beans are conveniently spilled. The Duke, who is preparing to be married, learns of the plot and bargains with Ludwig to engage in a “statutory duel,” an obscure law in which the combatants draw high cards instead of killing one another.

Ludwig wins and ascends the throne, while Rudolph becomes “technically,” but not literally, dead. The law is due to expire the next afternoon, after which the loser can “ come to life” once again. The troupe takes over the ducal palace, but all they have to wear are Greek costumes from their forthcoming production of “Triolus and Cressida.” What follows is a “modestly merry” farce concerning the legal identity of Ludwig’s wife-to-be.

David Colville plays Ludwig with the stuffy pseudo-authority of the old English actor Robert Morley. His primary fiancée, Lisa (who becomes the fourth option by the second act), is played by newcomer Sheila Shabazi, an attractive actress with a lovely, rapid vibrato and impeccable pitch.

Fiancée No. 2 is Julia, another member of the troupe, engagingly played by Colleen Keene, who gets to sing the gorgeous “So Ends My Dream,” proving that Sullivan still had a few sumptuous melodies left in him.

Don Warrick runs away with the show as the miserly hypochondriac Rudolph. Warrick is so good he makes everyone else in a scene with him better. In “Well, You’re a Pretty Kind of Fellow,” the dyspeptic duke delivers the last patter song of Gilbert and Sullivan’s career, and it’s a doozy, full of forced rhymes, invented words and grandiose bravado.

The ever-present John Pillsbury is the troupe’s theater manager, Ernest Dummkopf. Anthony Moresi is the Notary, whose misinterpretation of the obscure “statutory duel” law causes feathers to fly. Sydney Solomon Bowling is a treat as diminutive dowager Baroness von Krakenfeldt.

Rebecca Pillsbury directs with a sure hand and an obvious affection for the production. Jeremy Hanes provides the evocative set design, while Erin Heulitt’s period costumes are exquisite. Zach Spencer leads the compact and capable five-piece orchestra.

“The Grand Duke” might not be first-rate G&S, but it put an exclamation point on the end of an extraordinary career.

“The Grand Duke” continues through Oct. 21 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. For tickets, visit www.vcgsrc.org.

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