~ - 17/09/05 by Martin Denton~

The principal attraction of New York City Opera's current production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience is the presence of Michael Ball in one of the leading roles. Ball, who is bound for the NYC debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White at the Marquis Theatre next month, hasn't been seen on these shores since Aspects of Love in 1990. He is, you will discover, a bona fide musical theatre star: his baritone is lush and effortless, his bearing is charming and charismatic and sexy without even trying, and his way with a comic line—not much tested in the shows he's best known for, such as Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera —is superbly funny. Ball is, in short, a splendid leading man, of the sort in very short supply these days (and it doesn't hurt that he's still youthfully handsome). Patience doesn't give him nearly enough stage time to satisfy his fans, but he's very good in it. When he's around, the energy level of this lesser work by comic opera's masters trebles or quadruples.

He plays Reginald Bunthorne, an Oscar Wilde-ish aesthete who has taken his local village by storm by being what Gilbert calls in the stage directions a "fleshly poet." His odes are languid, drawn-out, and full of ardor; so is his own person, which is framed by a mane of curly locks and clothed in a colorful ensemble of purple trousers, gold waistcoat, and fur-lined jacket.

All the women in town are in love with him—except for Patience, the milk maid. So naturally it is Patience whom Reginald has decided he must have, and the first act is an elaborate journey toward his winning of her, which involves, in Gilbertian fashion, a foolish misunderstanding of the nature of love and duty on the part of the young lady and a complicated and contrived scheme (a lottery) on the part of the gentleman. Reginald's rival for Patience is another poet, the rather lighter-weight Archibald Grosvenor. After Archibald fails to win Patience's hand, he becomes the new favorite of the local ladies, displacing Reginald. Much to his consternation, Reginald comes to realize that he'd rather be adored by the masses than saddled with the milk maid. All is sorted out by play's end, of course. Interestingly, Reginald doesn't even get the girl—not even the slightly grotesque Lady Jane, who has been his one faithful follower, as she is chosen by the wealthy Duke of Dunstable to be his bride. The chorus of "twenty lovestruck maidens" are complemented and courted by a chorus of soldiers.

Patience —a show I was not familiar with until this performance—does not strike me as the best of Gilbert & Sullivan: it lacks the superlative wit and satiric bite of the best Gilbert lyrics and doesn't really have a single hit love song or march. Nevertheless, it's breezily charming, and there's plenty of material here to start your toes start tapping and cause you to laugh out loud. Tazewell Thompson's staging is broad and colorful, giving the music more than its due and punching up the comedy (perhaps too much, at times). Thompson seems to have confused aestheticism—the target of Gilbert's satire here—with effeminacy; when the soldiers try to turn poetical in a second act attempt to win over their twenty maidens, they do so by mincing and vogueing rather shamelessly. Even Ball overdoes it: Gilbert intends these men to be fops, not flaming queens, but the difference is not much respected here.

Thompson's work is hampered by Donald Eastman's set, which is a huge white structure that looks like the facade of a manor house. It takes up a great deal of the New York State Theatre stage's real estate, forcing Ball to perform his one terrific solo from its roof, which is both illogical and unfair to his fans. It also limits rather dramatically what Tazewell can do with his large chorus, who are relegated much of the time to a blank area stage left, bunched together in uninteresting patterns for want of space.

But the costumes, by Merrily Murray-Walsh, are fabulous, from Bunthorne's deliberately garish display to Patience's modest but chic milk maid garb to—the piece de resistance—a gorgeous array of art deco fashions for the lovesick maidens, all blacks and whites with the occasional splash of an unexpected turquoise or lavender. These gowns are knock-outs, every one: a real triumph of stylish design.

The company is something of a mixed bag. Matching Ball note for note and laugh for laugh is the formidable contralto Myrna Paris as the too-steadfast Lady Jane. She sings masterfully and clowns like a latter-day Bea Lillie, which is to say with miles and miles of put-on dignity that contrasts with the silliness of her actions, especially during her show-stopping solo in Act Two, which involves her playing—and playing with—a cello. Bass Kevin Burdette sings Archibald nicely, but he's not able to keep up with Ball's exquisite comedy in their climactic duet, which hurts the piece. Soprano Kathleen Magee and mezzo-sopranos Jennifer Roderer and Heather Johnson do fine work as the three main lovesick maidens, but Tonna Miller, though possessed of a lovely and clear voice, brings almost no luster to the title role. Christopher Jackson is similarly handsome but entirely uninteresting as the Duke (and his diction is very badly garbled). Timothy Nolen, who has the showy role of Colonel Calverley, appears to be badly miscast, as he is unable to cope with the patter song he's assigned. It's one of those nimble-tongued list songs that Gilbert includes in just about every score (and the lyric has been updated wittily), but Nolen renders it incomprehensible. I was forced to read the supertitles, entirely against my will.

Patience is, all that said, a pleasing divertissement, and when Paris and/or Ball hold forth it's authentic powerhouse entertainment. And it is very easy on the eye and ear, thanks to Murray-Walsh's enchanting costumes and Sullivan's seemingly endless supply of melody (conducted here by Gary Thor Wedow).

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