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Posted on Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 1:10 a.m.

UMGASS' non-traditional "Princess Ida" finds its footing in the second act

By Roger LeLievre

It was clear from the outset this would be no ordinary staging of Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operetta “Princess Ida.” Although the music was as expected, other parts of the show strayed about as far from traditional G&S as one could stray.

“Princess Ida,” the fall production of the University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society, opened Thursday night in Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

The three-act operetta tells the tale of Princess Ida (Alexandra Kahn), daughter of King Gama (Mitch Gillett), who has been betrothed since infancy to Prince Hilarion (David Wolff), son of King Hildebrand (Jesus Murillo). Strangers to each other, Ida has renounced men and founded a university for women at Castle Adamant. Hilarion, aided by his pals Florian (Matt Peckham) and Cyril (Alan Nagel) and disguised as women, sneaks into the castle to claim his bride.

But instead of setting the show in late 1800s England, Artistic Director John Wesley Hill transformed the court of Castle Hildebrand into a conservative town in western America, complete with denim-clad cowboys. The ladies of Castle Adamant were costumed as iPad-toting scholars in a variety of modern garb (loved the goth girl!). King Hildebrand was dressed to look like a 1930s gangster, while King Gama resembled none other than rock star Ozzy Osbourne. Yikes!

For a while in Act I, I felt like I was watching a production of “Oklahoma!” instead of Gilbert & Sullivan and I despaired for the rest of the show. I’m not a purist when it comes to staging, but I found the mishmash of costumes jarring, especially when coupled with some performances that seemed weaker than what I have come to expect from G&S (louder, please, and remember to enunciate!). The disappointing, one-dimensional scenery (cardboard cutout trees, for example) didn’t help either.

Happily, Act II was a completely different story. Here, the costumes helped rather than hindered, as Hilarion, Florian and Cyril went about the task of donning women’s clothes. Wolff, Peckham and Nagel outdid themselves vocally, and combined with some excellent physical comedy, the show really began to pop. I particularly liked Nagel’s rendition the bawdy “Would you Know the Kind of Maid?” Not to be outdone by the men, soprano Kahn was in superb voice as the title character, supported by Lori Gould, who brought some real depth to her portrayal of a wonderfully spaced-out Lady Blanche.

Music Director Matthew Dell’s ensemble performed Sullivan’s score admirably right from the beginning; the overture was especially enjoyable.

Hill wrote in program notes about “excessive reverence” toward traditional G&S stagings, and indeed his is not the only production to alter the show in this matter (one North Carolina company even set a recent “Ida” in outer space). I guess it all worked out in the end, but I can’t help but wonder if this might be one of those cases of just because you can change something doesn’t mean you should.

“Princess Ida” will continue tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. as well as at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $20-$10.


John Hill

Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 5:31 p.m.

Hi Roger! Thanks for your review! Yeah, maybe you're right. Better not to mess with things too much. And for my own sake it's too bad! UMGASS is a wonderful collective in its current incarnation and an amazing institution historically. I'd love to work with them again. Who knows how likely that is after THIS show? But we took risks: I as the director, and the cast and production team for following my lead. I agree that Act II comes alive in a way that Act I does not. But it's a much stronger act to begin with. Act I is exposition; Act II is having fun. The medieval pageant often employed in Act I most likely helps when the show is done that way. But if we had done medieval in Act I, I don't see how we could have done Act II the way we did it. And it was worth it. So was the approach we took with Act I. Where else have you seen a western dance in Ida? Or a minuet? It works because the actors make it work. Hooray for the cast! So here's MY review. (Disclaimer: I might be biased). You mentioned some of the principals in your review, but there's also Mitch Gillette (Gama), who aces my very challenging acting and characterization assignment. Jesse Murillo as Hildebrand has reached that delicious level where the role and characterization are complete but the performer's wry smile is there too. Katy Van Maanen (Lady Psyche) goes straight to your head faster than champagne at 14 000 feet. Alexandria Strother makes a delightful, irresistible Melissa. There should be operettas about both of these ladies! The three warriors (Ben Kazez, Jeremy Williams, and Phil Rhodes) achieve a marvelous comic ensemble. And the members of the chorus create rich, distinct characters. Their reactions and relationships are developed and well-played.