A real fairy tale

The title character Iolanthe, played by actress Jennifer Moran, arises from her exile at the bottom of a pond in Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s latest production. - Paddy Tennant
The title character Iolanthe, played by actress Jennifer Moran, arises from her exile at the bottom of a pond in Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s latest production.
— image credit: Paddy Tennant

The first review of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Iolanthe summarized the show concisely – but, as it has turned out, far from accurately.

“Neither Mr. Gilbert as an author, nor Mr. Sullivan as a musician, write for immortality,” said the anonymous critic, writing for the London Morning Advertiser’s Nov. 27, 1882 edition.

“The school they have founded,” he went on, “may not, perhaps, last far beyond their own time; nor can it be said that their operas are likely to confer any benefit upon the future lyric stage.”

Which only goes to prove how wrong critics can be.

That error of judgement would be fiercely contested today by the many Gilbert & Sullivan societies and other light opera groups flourishing around the globe who have proved there is a place in the modern world for the sublimely ridiculous offerings of the Savoy Theatre’s most famous collaborators.

And that includes our own local representatives of the tradition, the Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society.

Some 125 years after its London debut, the group is preparing a new production of Iolanthe for a May run in the intimate surroundings of the Surrey Arts Centre studio theatre.

For three of the participants – Roger Hussen, who takes on the rich character role of the Lord Chancellor, director Rick Harmon and choreographer Carol Seitz – it’s almost a quarter century since their own first version of Iolanthe in 1984, also for the society.

“I was in the chorus,” said Hussen, pointing to himself in a group picture in the original program, over coffee recently with Harmon (recently retired as theatre guru at Earl Marriott Secondary) and Seitz (founder and director of the Classic Steps studio). “There, that’s me with hair.”

“You were hot!” exclaimed Seitz.

“I didn’t know anyone else in the group,” recalled Hussen, who teaches for Surrey Connect online learning. “The show had been cast and somebody asked me if I’d like to join the chorus because they were looking for tenors.”

“We’re still looking,” Seitz chimed in, to Harmon’s laughing agreement.

Hussen has since become one of the mainstays of the society. His wife, fellow society veteran Mari Anne, is producer of the current show and their children Robyn, Tracy and James (like many offspring of society members) grew up appearing in the shows.

Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri, to give it its full title, is a suitably fanciful tale pitting woodland fairies against the stuffy and dimwitted peers of the House of Lords.

A young girl, Phyllis, is the ward of the British Lord Chancellor, who, like most of the other peers, has romantic designs on her.

She is, in turn, in love with an Arcadian shepherd, Strephon, who is half fairy and half mortal, but is alarmed when she sees him kiss a young-looking fairy – not realizing she is the ageless Iolanthe, Strephon’s mother, who has been exiled from Fairyland for 25 years for the crime of marrying a mortal.

This will actually be the third Iolanthe for the legendary, felicitous Seitz-Harmon team – the show was produced again in 1996, and, Seitz adds, she’s restaged some of the dances several times for festivals and variety shows.

After so many happy experiences working together they’ve honed their communication to a virtually psychic level, they said, which may explain why Harmon is now willing, with Seitz’s permission, to divulge one of their long-standing verbal secret codes (former cast members beware).

“Whenever we used to say ‘It’s wonderful, I love it!’ that meant ‘It needs to be fixed right now’ “ he chuckled.

They have not, they hastened to add, had to use it about the current version, which boasts a stellar cast including newcomers Julie Brooks (as fairy Celia) and Reginald Pillay (as Strephon), plus such reliable talents as Hussen, Jennifer Moran (Iolanthe), Robert Newcombe (Lord Mountararat), Larry Doan (Lord Tolloller) Arne Larsen (Guards Private Willis), Christina Wells (Fairy Queen) and Colleen Donnelly (Phyllis).

What makes Iolanthe, in particular, so appealing? Coming exactly halfway in the canon, it represents librettist Gilbert and composer Sullivan at the peak of their powers, and while not as well known as Pirates of Penzance or The Mikado, it is now regarded by many as one of their best.

Seitz and Harmon say they have no set concept of doing the show, and a lot of the enjoyment is seeing what a new cast’s talents and chemistry can bring to the piece.

“It’s great fun – it can be played right over the top or more seriously and the fairies can be dancing fairies or more forest fairies,” said Seitz.

And some up-to-date references hold promise that we won’t miss some clear parallels between the ineffectual House of Lords of Gilbert’s time and the Canadian Senate of today.

“I like Iolanthe because there’s not only a lot of comedy, but also a great deal of drama to it,” said Harmon. “At some points it’s quite touching. This is unusual for Gilbert and Sullivan – although The Yeoman of the Guard is a more sombre piece, the popular operettas, such as Pinafore and Pirates are quite light. To me this is their most complete work – the music and the book go together so well.”

“It’s more like musical comedy in that way,” Seitz added.

They note that the third member of the artistic triumverate, musical director George Austin, has contributed his own entirely new orchestration of the score for this year’s production.

“He’s very proud of it, if exhausted,” Seitz said.

“It’s a sensation of ‘I did all this work,’ but it’s also ‘wow – I did all this work.’ ”

For Hussen, this is his second role for the society in the George Grossmith tradition of character comedy and patter song (following up on his ‘model of a modern Major General’ in Pirates in 2003).

“The Chancellor is head of the House of Lords – his background is as a lawyer. He studies things, thinks about every side of an issue.”

“He appears indecisive because he investigates every issue, but he also has tender moments and some very funny moments in the show,” Harmon said.

“And I get to do a little tap,” Hussen said.

Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society presents Iolanthe, or the Peer and the Peri, May 14-25 (8 p.m. performances, 2:30 p.m. matinees May 18 and May 25) at the Surrey Arts Centre Studio Theatre, 13750 88 Ave. Tickets available by calling 604-501-5566 or for more information visit www.fvgss.org

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