In Victorian England, a prince named Hilarion and two witty courtiers scale a castle wall, don women’s robes and speak in falsetto voices in order to infiltrate an all-female university.
An old Monty Python gag? No, this is a scene from “Princess Ida,” Gilbert and Sullivan’s farcical light opera which debuted in 1884.
Like most G&S plays, “Ida,” currently being staged by the Ventura County Gilbert and Sullivan Repertoire Company, is a timeless satire on societal mores in Victorian England, aided by deft humor and sumptuous melodies.
The story focuses on King Hildebrand’s son Prince Hilarion, who was betrothed at infancy to Princess Ida, daughter of King Gama, but hasn’t seen her since.
The princess is now head of a women’s university in one of her father’s castles, schooling students on the inferiority of the male species. “Man is nature’s sole mistake,” she tells her students.
The lovestruck Hilarion resolves to infiltrate Castle Adamant and claim Princess Ida as his bride, disguising himself and two courtiers as women in order to gain entry.
Hilarion is played by newcomer Jonathan Matthews, a teacher at Pepperdine University who also leads the children’s choir at Acacia Elementary School in Thousand Oaks. Matthews is a welcome addition to the troupe and one of the finest tenors we’ve heard here in years. He arrived in Thousand Oaks two years ago, having received his doctorate of music in vocal performance at Indiana University.
After a three-year absence, Julie Anne Bermel returns in the title role, which calls for a more legitimate soprano voice than is usually heard in G&S plays. Bermel is a wonderful actress and gives depth to her part, able to remain stately and imperious despite the silly goings-on about her. She even executes a magnificent pratfall, tumbling backward over a parapet, only to be rescued by Hilarion.
Matthews and Bermel are assisted by a wonderful cast, all of whom exhibit melodious voices and keen comic acting ability.
March 16 was “understudy day,” with female ensemble members swapping roles. On that night, the venerable Sydney Bowers played Lady Blanche, Professor of Abstract Science at the university, who resents Princess Ida’s authority and looks to replace her some day (“Come Mighty Must”).
If we had attended any other night, we wouldn’t have witnessed the remarkable talents of Amanda Ju, an 11th-grade student at Westlake High School, who played Melissa, Lady Blanche’s daughter. Melissa isn’t fooled by the cross-dressing invaders and falls instantly in love with Florian, played with comic relish by the marvelous bass-baritone Anthony Moresi. Ju not only possesses a rich mezzo-soprano, but also has a natural affinity for comedy and is absolutely delightful in her characterization.
Like Ju, Genevieve Levin was excellent in her one-day understudy role as Lady Psyche, Professor of Humanities (“Towards the Empyrean Heights”).
The cast also included Colin Fluxman, providing a stentorian presence as King Hildebrand, and Gary Saxer as grumpy King Gama, who, in his comical introductory song, “If You Give Me Your Attention,” can’t comprehend why he is viewed as being so disagreeable.
Also making sterling contributions to the show are Rodney McCormick (Arac), James Tobin (Schunthius) and S. Christopher Stephen (Guron) as King Gama’s dullard, warlike sons, and Caleb Heulitt as Cyril, another of Hilarion’s cross-dressing castle marauders.
As always, Zach Spencer led the skilled chamber orchestra. The crew was headed by John (producer) and Rebecca (director) Pillsbury, as astute interpreters of the G&S catalog as you will find anywhere. Jeremy Hanes (set design), Becky Masseth Castells (choreography) and Erin Heulitt (costumer) made valued contributions to the play’s visual elegance while Terry Fishman ensured the British dialects were all properly articulated.
“Princess Ida” plays through March 25 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts, 403 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For information, visit vcgsrc.org.