IN: Reviews

Ida’s Ardor

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Mei Lin Po as Ada (Sue Flintphoto)

The storied Sudbury Savoyards’s recent production of one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s least-performed works, Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant, at the Kirschner Auditorium Theater at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School from February 24 – March 2, 2024, achieved a rousing success.

Stage Director Rebecca Graber’s thoughtfully conceived vision for this came across with great satisfactions. Navigating a potentially divisive libretto with finesse, Graber used contemporary dress and a mostly period-agnostic setting, and added earnestness to comedic characters, to find depth and nuance in a work that in less careful hands could have come across as an insulting satire of feminism. Graber also cast many of the smaller and chorus roles gender-neutrally, so that characters’ genders appeared primarily in choice of costume, and not in gendered hair, makeup, or obvious body types, resulting in (for instance) some bald or bearded female characters, highlighting the arbitrariness of gender in the libretto and indeed in society at large, and changing the context of the crossdressing disguises central to the plot in Acts II and III.

Music Director Stephanie Beatrice led the orchestra and singers to near-professional levels. Unlike many community theater orchestras, the Sudbury Savoyards’ orchestra transcended price-of-admission hurdles of pitch and time, to focus on expressive dynamics and the emotive content of Sullivan’s score―impressive for such a rarity as Princess Ida.

Maria Bozich, in the title role of Princess Ida, the headstrong feminist idealist evinced first rate operatic training. Michael Gonzalez, as Ida’s intended Prince Hilarion, showcased both vocal prowess and physical comedy. His rendition of the lovestruck prince endeared him to us, and his comedic acting had us in stitches. Further, Gonzalez’s chemistry with Thai Johnson as Cyril and David Smyth as Florian added to the overall charm of the show. Whether bantering, harmonizing, or carrying out well-executed comic stage business, this threesome kept the audience engaged and entertained as they infiltrated the women-only academic sanctum of Castle Adamant by cross-dressing in tartan skirts.

Brad Amidon’s portrayal of Ida’s hilariously caricaturish father King Gama captured the essence of his famously unsympathetic character without veering into outright villainy. Princess Ida’s brothers—Arac (Blair Eig), Guron (Matthew Garber), and Scynthius (Santo Mammone)—appeared as hypermasculine wannabe meathead jocks, with over-the-top letters A, G , and S on their sweatshirts to identify them (used in a handful of memorable stage gags). Eig, Garber, and Mammone’s physicality and exaggerated masculinity under Graber’s excellent direction provided both comedic relief and incisive commentary and carved some very memorable moments out of their fairly minor roles. The final battle in Act III between Eig, Garber, and Mammone against Gonzalez, Johnson, and Smyth, delivered an exceptionally inspired bit of stage comedy: Gonzalez, Johnson, and Smyth removed their tartan skirt disguises and used them as matadors’ capes to trick Eig, Garber, and Mammone into charging and knocking one another out.

Thai Johnson as Cyril Danielle Shevchenko as Psyche (Chris Pollari photo)

Although originally slated for Matt Tragert, the performance that your reviewer saw on March 2 featured Tim Ayers-Kerr as Prince Hilarion’s father King Hildebrand; Ayers-Kerr stepped into the role on short notice when Tragert fell ill. Ayers-Kerr’s gave a masterful impersonation of portrayal of the king—all the more impressive considering that Ayers-Kerr typically sings tenor rather than baritone, and that he was on-book, singing and acting his heart out as if he were unencumbered by a score. Ayers-Kerr’s nuanced interpretations, and suit-and-fedora costuming reminiscent of a mafia don, proved central to this production’s vision because it successfully painted King Hildebrand, not Lady Blanche, as the true antagonist. Becca Graber’s direction choices highlighted this, and the excellence of Ayers-Kerr’s traversal helped elevate this production and locate the villainy where W.S. Gilbert often finds it, in positions of power ― in the tradition of Sir Joseph Porter and not Dick Deadeye as the true antagonist of HMS Pinafore, and Alexis Pointdextre and not J.W.Wells as the true antagonist of The Sorcerer.

But Sara DeLong as Lady Blanch, gave the most extraordinary turns and stole every scene she graced. Her gorgeous singing combined with deft acting, impeccable delivery, and brilliant comic timing made her character genuinely sympathetic despite its caricatures of strident feminism and the internal politics of academia. DeLong’s ability to evoke empathy from the audience in an unsympathetic role, testifies to her talent, and helped the production avoid the trap of making Princess Ida primarily a mocking satire of feminism, rather than a broader and more interesting commentary on gender roles in society. The audience also would never guess that DeLong typically sings soprano; she inhabited this alto role with warmth, highlighting her range and adaptability. DeLong enjoyed excellent on-stage chemistry with Lady Blanche’s daughter Melissa (Sara Mitnik), and Lady Blanche’s faculty colleague Lady Psyche (Danielle Shevchenko); both made excellent musical and dramatic cases for their roles.

While the performances shone, some of the technical aspects were somewhat underwhelming. Set design, scene painting, and lighting lacked the creativity and polish of the rest of the production. Bill Lopoulos (sound design) and Elizabeth Stone (makeup design), however, deserve applause. With all of the actors wearing hidden mics, the voices filled the house with crisp execution, and the makeup enhanced character portrayals. Costume designers Sue Flint and Donna Roessler also did excellent work and chose modern rather than the typical medieval period costumes. This contemporary twist injected some modern energy into this Ida, freshly focused the operetta on the satire rather than belaboring the setting. The simple costuming did its job effectively. The production made extensive and effective use of uncredited props to enhance the comedy throughout — one of director Becca Graber’s calling cards, along with finding some clever way of slipping the macarena into her choreography.

Sudbury Savoyards’s Princess Ida provided a delightful and effective blend of music, comedy, and surprising depth. The robust performances and creative choices made this memorable.

Nathaniel Koven studied voice and piano from a young age, and has a particular passion for opera and musical theater. He has sung with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and has been an actor, singer, stage director, and producer of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas at Harvard from 2008-2011 and MIT from 2012-2015.

Maria Bozich as Princess Ida and Women of Castle Adamant (Chris Pollari photo)

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