- Gilbert and Sullivan never had it so bad.
Lyric Opera Cleveland opens its season with a rather squalid murder mystery: Bewildered audiences stagger up the aisle wondering who killed Gilbert and Sullivan.
In a slot originally reserved for the lush Arabian Nights musical fantasy Kismet, the opera company, in a fit of budgetary caution, substituted Over the Moon With Gilbert and Sullivan, leaving a public hungry for melodic pleasures with a mouthful of underdone porridge.
It would take the services of Sherlock Holmes to sufficiently assign blame for this sorry mess. This is a company, renowned for its picnicking intermissions, that in gleeful summers past could pull magical productions of Harnick and Bock, Bernstein, and Mozart out of its hat. Here, it renders the whimsy and delight of the English language's bouncing ambassadors of bonhomie in a state of stasis.
As we summon the paddy wagon to haul the culprits to a particularly low tier in Dante's inferno, reserved for people who have created damned awful spectacles, the first offender would be one Colin Cabot, who, in 1996, inflicted Over the Moon With Gilbert and Sullivan on the Milwaukee Skylight Opera. In this work of stupefying artificiality, Cabot pillages and plunders the masters' kingdom, taking advantage of expired copyrights to act as barbaric tomb robber. He decimated their operatic edifices, indiscriminately grabbing their most precious jewels and stripping them from their essential settings. Then, he stole their very identity, casting them in a horrific Punch-and-Judy show.
The format is nauseatingly didactic, in the manner of dumbed-down PBS. Congenial singing actors are trapped in the blandest bondage, enacting Muppets disguised in historical humanity. The costumes suggest Bedlam, and the setting is dingy. The performers move around the tiny stage like tin soldiers manipulated by a buffoon. They perform Gilbert's comic choruses in what sounds like the garbled sound of turn-of-the-century Edison cylinders.
The irascible Sir William Schwenck Gilbert is portrayed by Lance Ashmore with the emotional weight of a local weather forecaster. Blinding us all with his patent-leather hair and sideburns, he madly flits around David Neal's anemic Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, begging Sullivan to give up his pretensions to high art and keep their coffers full by continuing to write comic operas.
Historical figures from the Victorian era regularly scurry from the wings, like musical comedy cockroaches, to help serenade the baffled composers as they look for inspiration for their next work. At times the canon is sung with original lyrics, and at other times, the performers are burdened with wretched bastardizations seemingly written by the local butcher, with mentions of nuclear fission, the Red Sox, and Phantom of the Opera chandeliers. The lyrics are rendered fatally inaudible. The show grows mildew before our eyes. The intentions become ever more muddled, while the characters parade about as silly asses who are in a state of confusion as to whether they are Gilbert's madcap characters or actual people.
This theatrical assault on musical demigods grows so unbearable, it takes on the aura of a World War I piece of propaganda meant to demoralize Britannia. In much the same vein, one could visualize further horrors perpetrated by the same team. For instance, a follow-up revue in which Oscar Hammerstein III tries to coerce Richard Rodgers into writing South Pacific by regaling him with the help of a visiting Ethel Merman's bilious renditions from Oklahoma! and Carousel, or perhaps Elvis Presley spurred on to greatness when the Colonel throws blue suede shoes at the Pelvis's pompadour.
By dinner break, a good fourth of the audience could be spotted frantically tying their white bucks, packing their croissants and salmon back into their picnic baskets, and fleeing University Circle, denouncing all things pseudo-British.
Those who stuck it out for the second act were rewarded with a lambent Andrea Rae rendition of "The Sun Whose Rays" from The Mikado. In her sweet simplicity, she made us forget momentarily how Mark Kobak's dismal set evoked a bombed-out postwar Berlin, rather than the expected Victorian funhouse. Another of the evening's few pleasant diversions was wagering on the odds of Jeremy Benjamin's lights actually illuminating a performer.
The evening's other balm was Madeline Gray's zesty Mikado hoyden Katisha. Cutting across the gloom like a silver machete, she and the aforementioned Rae are the only two who deserve rescue from that Hades-bound paddy wagon of distressed pirates and moldering maidens.
As for director James Haffner, there is little forgiveness for work that runs the gamut from uninspired to unintelligible.
Yet Providence is kind. Topsy Turvy, a recent film chronicling Gilbert and Sullivan's tortured evolution of giddy euphoria with the same infinite attention to detail and richness as the brushes of Renaissance masters, has just come out on video as a palliative for the poisonous misfire.