Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Princess Ida is Practically Perfect

The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company brings precision and sass to this timely piece. 

Photo by Stephen Hage

How much do you know about Gilbert & Sullivan

If you're a fan of musicals you've likely seen the Pirates of Penzance at some point in your life, but did you know that Gilbert & Sullivan actually penned 14 operattas? The definition of dynamic theatrical duos long before Rogers & Hammerstein came onto the scene, Gilbert & Sullivan have a mostly fabulous catalog of works (although not without some deserved controversy; read: The Mikado) that were true parodies of British culture and politics in their heyday. What has surprised me upon recently re-encountering some of these works is how well several of them have aged. It's a treat to see something well over 100 years old still generating conversation and laughter; done well, a Gilbert & Sullivan production can be a sharp addition to any theatrical season today. 

I was delighted to attend my first such production, Princess Ida, from The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company (GSVLOC), a longstanding local tradition that was regrettably new to me! I came expecting to see some enthusiastic fans indulging their love of this genre and quickly realized that I had thoroughly underestimated this group. The production opens with a powerhouse orchestra and a full throttle chorus that keeps the pedal on the gas throughout the rest of the show. Despite two intermissions (normally a hard no for me), the entire production clocks out in a bit shy of two and a half hours, keeping the action moving reasonably quickly and the audience engaged. 

Photo by Stephen Hage

Most of that engagement is thanks to the story, which has aged surprisingly well. Princess Ida tells the story of the marriage of Prince Hilarion and Princess Ida - or rather, the lack thereof. Ida and Hilarion were betrothed at the age of 1 and 2, respectively, and it has been 20 years since their engagement. On the day she is promised to marry, Ida does not appear with her father King Gama in Hilarion (and his father King Hildebrand's) court. We learn that she has determined to live a life completely free of men and has barricaded herself into a castle and university, where she only accepts (and leads) a cadre of female students. Determined to get his bride at any cost, Hilarion sneaks into the university and finds that he quite likes Ida as well as the work she does. It takes some time for Hilarion and his compadres to be discovered - long enough for his father Hildebrand's army to come calling for Ida's hand with force - and by the time the final conflict arrives, parties on both sides of the issue have begun to reconsider their former positions. The show ends with some surprisingly feminist statements from Hilarion, an ensuing agreement from Ida to marry him, and overall the happy Gilbert & Sullivan ending that has pleased audiences for 130+ years. 

One of the things that sold me on Princess Ida out of the gate was the gorgeous, steampunk inspired production design. Hats off to Set Designer Larry Rostad; Costume Designer Barb Portinga; Props Designer Katie Philips; and Stage Director Joe Andrews. There was a clear vision for this show from the get-go, and everything from the cork bottle goggles to the clever corset and blind-drawn skirts to the sci-fi inspired laser guns is both witty and satisfying to watch. The cohesive presentation makes watching this Princess Ida almost feel like you're participating in a clever fin de siecle video game, and several adroit lighting tricks from Lighting Designer Alex Flinner (such as the ship projection "sailing" between territories during the overture) really enhance that effect. 

Photo by Stephen Hage

The other major selling point? This is a terrific, musically powerhouse cast. I was stunned from the second the music started at how excellent it was - from the full orchestra to the giant chorus, there isn't a weak link in this bunch. Normally I try to list out favorites and I'm not going to do that here, as the size of the cast and orchestra would make this post book-length! Just trust me overall: you are in very, very good hands when it comes to this show, and any musical aficionados will find many things to appreciate. I hadn't realized how much I've been craving a traditional orchestral musical experience and Princess Ida really fulfilled that need for me! This crew was blowing the walls off their small theater, and you will be immersed in a lush aural experience from start to finish. 

I've been on a tear lately attending shows by new-to-me companies in the Twin Cities (like Uprising Theater and Open Eye Figure Theater), and it's been so fun! My time with GSVLOC was a perfect addition to this series and I'm so glad I attended. Princess Ida was a new-to-me show and it really blew me away. I loved this production and I will definitely be back for future shows. I'd encourage anyone to see Princess Ida - come for the gorgeous music, stay for the inventive production design and modern storytelling. The show is on through March 25 at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center, so you only have a couple more weeks to check it out - click here for more information and to buy tickets