2015-03-12 / On the Town

Comic opera still delights after 133 years

By Cary Ginell

O RAPTURE!—William Vallandigham as Strephon and Ariel Downs as Phyllis in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” playing in Thousand Oaks. 
Courtesy of John Pillsbury O RAPTURE!—William Vallandigham as Strephon and Ariel Downs as Phyllis in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” playing in Thousand Oaks. Courtesy of John Pillsbury Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Iolanthe” premiered in 1882 in London’s Savoy Theatre, the first of their plays to debut there. The Savoy was the first theater in the world to be wired for electricity, and the playwrights took advantage of that fact by adding lights to the costumes of the show’s troupe of fairies.

One hundred thirty-three years later, the Ventura County Gilbert and Sullivan Repertoire Company honors that historic event by equipping its fairies with electric lights brilliantly outlining their wings.

This was one of many delightful accents that make the company’s production, which runs at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts through March 29, a sparkling one—to the ear as well as to the eye.

Producers Rebecca and John Pillsbury have put together a glowing production of the classic show that radiates beauty and whimsy from every quarter.

The story follows the pattern of most Gilbert and Sullivan operas: True love is thwarted by a difference in classes while two opposing factions—in this case, a group of dim-witted, aristocrats and a gaggle of sprightly fairies— fumble about.

At the center of all this is the Lord Chancellor, played by John Pillsbury, who specializes in Gilbert’s stuffy authority figures.

In the story, the fairy Iolanthe, played with charm and grace by Mariah Tobin, is banished after she marries a mortal.

Unbeknownst to all, Iolanthe bore a son, the romantic-minded Strephon, played by the excellent William Vallandigham, who has fallen in love with the beauteous Phyllis (Ariel Downs).

Most of the plot deals with the sorting out of who Phyllis should marry, whether it is the earnest Strephon or one of two brainless earls. The Lord Chancellor wants a shot at landing Phyllis himself, but Gilbert throws a monkey wrench into the story, which is simply and ludicrously resolved at the end.

“Iolanthe” is not as wellknown as Gilbert and Sullivan’s other successes, such as “The Pirates of Penzance” and “HMS Pinafore,” but it features one of Sullivan’s most appealing scores.

Highlights include Phyllis and Strephon’s lovely duet, “None Shall Part Us From Each Other,” sung beautifully by Downs and Vallandigham, and the Act 1 fi- nale, a patter song performed with articulate fluency by the entire ensemble.

Ariel Downs, a Thousand Oaks High graduate, has matured into a wonderful actress with a ravishing coloratura soprano voice. Vallandigham’s silvery tenor works beautifully with Downs’ soprano, and the two make a marvelous romantic centerpiece.

Pillsbury tackles Gilbert’s patter songs (“When I Went to the Bar” and “Love, Unrequited, Robs Me of My Rest”—aka “The Nightmare Song”) with his usual aplomb.

Karen Sonnenschein is marvelous as the Fairy Queen, an authoritarian with a heart of gold who speaks and sings with the grandiose stature of Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont. Jeff Berg adds comedic flair to his golden tenor voice as Lord Tolloler, while Brian Pletcher ably portrays Lord Mountararat.

Isabella Mancuso and Shirley Chikukwa both exhibit pretty voices as key fairies Celia and Leila, respectively. As Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards, Joseph Seeley is also excellent, delivering the Act 2 opener, “When All Night Long a Chap Remains.”

Jeremy Hanes created the attractive sets (as well as the lighting), highlighted by an exquisite pastoral setting for Act 1. Erin Heulitt was in charge of the elegant costumes, including the fairies’ illuminated wings. Zach Spencer led the first-rate fivepiece orchestra.

The Repertoire Company’s “Iolanthe” can be summed up in two words: “O Rapture!”

For tickets, visit www.hillcrestarts.com.

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