Pretense, Humor, and Patience

~ Columbia Spectator - 15/09/05 by Julia Stroud~

If opera is an acquired taste, then a Gilbert-and-Sullivan operetta is a fruitcake—passed around by many, beloved by a select few. Within the G-&-S canon, Patience (currently being presented by New York City Opera at the State Theater) is one of the most rarefied; though its music is beautiful, the story can be deadly boring.

It concerns Bunthorne (Michael Ball), a poet of the Oscar Wilde variety who is admired by a legion of love-sick maidens for his aesthetic mannerisms and pseudo-sensitive nature. He has set his sights on Patience (the village milkmaid, sung by Tonna Miller), the one woman in town immune to his romantic gestures. Alas, she is in love with the new aesthetic game in town, poseur Archibald Grosvenor (a dead ringer for James McNeil Whistler).

At this point in HMS Pinafore or The Mikado, mass chaos would ensue as characters fell in and out of love and allegiances realigned all over the place. Patience is, however, so mired in pretense that the dramatic arc never achieves chaos or catharsis—in fact, nothing much happens at all. While at times painful to watch, it does seem to be librettist Gilbert's point: pretense is ridiculous—as ridiculous as the plot of this operetta.

That being said, director Tazewell Thompson makes the best of a thin plot by emphasizing the show's humorous elements. While the women's chorus consists of aestheticized maidens, a movement defined by Wilde, Whistler, and a queer proclivity to merge Japanese postures with early English styles, the men's chorus is a brigade of soldiers clad in garish primary colors. Merrily Murray-Walsh's costumes draw this distinction to comic effect, and Timothy Nolen's Colonel Calverly gamely spews his various patter songs. As is common—and welcome—in G-&-S performances, a few anachronistic allusions have been added; Calverly takes a jab at Bush, while Grosvenor makes a snide remark about the boys of the New York City Ballet (a troupe who shares stage space with NYCO).

The main attraction of the production, especially for middle-aged women, is British, blond, baritone Michael Ball. The heartthrob best known for originating Marius in the London production of Les Miserables (and who seems to be getting a little bit doughier as he ages) has a massive and typically unbridled fan base in London. Though he's never achieved quite the same status in the States, he is preparing himself for a leading role in producer Cameron Mackintosh's latest Broadway effort, the much-anticipated Andrew Lloyd Webber-penned Woman in White. This will be a move from musical theater romantic lead to comic relief, one that he seems to be practicing as Bunthorne in Patience.

Murray-Walsh has him decked out in spandex day-glo flared pants, fur coat, and over-the-top curly wig as he prances around the stage; while it may be a bit much, at least Ball appears to be having fun. Most surprisingly, as Ball is best known for his powerhouse baritone belt (an untrained sound for an opera house, but one that is appealing nonetheless), Bunthorne has no aria, only a seemingly endless recitative (though quite funny if done well, as here) and patter duets with both Lady Jane (the oldest and most lovesick maiden, sung by Myrna Paris) and Grosvenor (Kevin Burdette). Burdette more than holds his own against the star power of Ball, and their duet is a clear highlight of the evening. Though the production doesn't bring anything new or particularly exciting to the operetta, it would be difficult to find a more professional or musically exquisite version around. Plus, G & S is pretty funny—if you like that sort of thing.

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