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Posted on Sat, Nov 26, 2011 : 5:21 a.m.

UMGASS offering a fresh take on 'Princess Ida'

By Roger LeLievre

Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Princess Ida” will have an updated look when the comic operetta opens Thursday at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. The show is the fall production of the University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society.

The presentation freshens up the setting and costumes while still being faithful to the score and libretto, said Director John Hill. Instead of setting the show in late 1800s England, the court of Castle Hildebrand is now a conservative town in western America, and the ladies of Castle Adamant are costumed as iPad-wielding scholars in modern dress.


'Princess Ida'

  • Who: University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society.
  • What: Comic operetta, with a few fresh touches.
  • Where: Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 825 N. University Ave.
  • When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
  • How much: $20-$10. Tickets are available at
And that’s not all that’s been freshened up. Although one of the show’s satirical targets is women’s education—which, at the time it was written (the mid-1800s), was a relatively recent phenomenon—that premise is a bit quaint these days. So now there’s a new target.

“We’ve decided we’re going to satirize diversity,” Hill said. “We’re not going to go against women in the university, that’s in the story and you need that for not just the gags but for the story to go forward. But what would it be today? How can we turn this so-called satire into something that’s going to speak to us that we can work with and I can get actors and actresses to identify with?”

There may be other new references to pop culture as well.

“We added a couple of other touches I think don’t distract from the music but I think bring situations in the libretto a more timely touch that improves the humor and makes it a little easier for some of the people in the cast to get in touch with (their roles),” he added.

The three-act operetta tells the tale of Princess Ida, daughter of King Gama, who has been betrothed since infancy to Prince Hilarion, son of King Hildebrand. However, the two are strangers to each other. Ida has renounced men and founded a university for women at Castle Adamant. Hilarion, aided by two friends and disguised as women, sneaks into the castle to claim his bride. The deception is discovered and, as so often happens where Gilbert & Sullivan are concerned, chaos ensues.

The operetta is based on an 1874 narrative poem by Alfred Tennyson called “The Princess.” Gilbert had written a farcical musical play, based on the poem, in 1870, and took much of the dialogue for “Princess Ida” from that play.

Alexandra Kahn, former president of the UMGASS board, will play Princess Ida. David Wolff has been cast as Hilarion and UMGASS veteran Mitch Gillett will play King Gama. Matt Peckham, current UMGASS board president, will play Florian. Other principal cast members include Lori Gould, Katrina Van Maanen, Alexandria Strother, Amanda O'Toole, Jenna Hane, Imani Mchunu, Jesse Murillo, Alan Nagel, Ben Kazez, Phillip Rhodes and Jeremy Williams. Matthew Dell will serve as music director.

Hill holds a PhD in theater studies at the University of Michigan. This is his first time directing an UMGASS show. He said that the music in “Princess Ida” is exceptional.

“I find that it’s a piece that has its humor and has its lightness, but it was obviously written by somebody who had a really good feel for contemporary musical theater of all sorts, not just the light stuff,” Hill said. “There are allusions to grand opera and some of the national opera that was happening at about the same time. The structure and some of the melodies—I hear some Verdi here, some Smetana there, some Handel.”

There are also two good wordplay “patter” songs, Hill added, specifically “If you give me your attention” and “When ere I spoke,” both sung by the same character, Gama, the comic villain of the piece. In addition, Lady Blanche’s aria in Act II, which is often cut from productions, will be included in UMGASS’ version.

“I believe this is the first time it has been performed by UMGASS. It’s a really great piece, fun and in the tradition of the malevolent mezzo aria,” said Hill.