Gilbert and Sullivan remain fresh in ‘The Gondoliers’

Gilbert and Sullivan are ubiquitous in the theatre world and beyond. Their songs appear in television shows both in their original form and in parody, in shows like Star Trek and Family Guy.  Yet while other productions play with their time period, projecting plot and characters into modern scenarios, much of the charm of a Gilbert and Sullivan production comes from its Victorian history. The McGill Savoy Society’s production of The Gondoliers is no different: Stepping into Moyse Hall is anachronistic in and of itself, and adding a Victorian-era operetta to the mix heightens the nostalgic atmosphere. Yet, escapism is only part of the appeal of  The Gondoliers. More than 130 years after it first premiered, the play remains relevant. Themes of gender, agency, and love are just as fresh as they were when the show premiered in 1889. The Savoy Society conveys such stories wonderfully though dance numbers featuring a fantastic chorus, as well as genuinely emotional pieces sung by its leads.

As with other Gilbert and Sullivan works like Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore, Gondoliers satirizes class differences, bureaucracy, and the monarchy. As anyone who has seen coverage of Mexit (Meghan Markle and her husband’s choice to leave the royal family) can attest, all of these themes are equally present today. There is something uniquely comforting about stepping back in time to confront issues of the present. A production like Hamilton comes to mind, which effectively uses modern music to update its historical setting. The music of Gondoliers, however, is very much contemporary to its staging, and rightly so. It would not be Gilbert and Sullivan without jaunty patter-song, clever twisting rhymes, and cheeky nods to the audience. The Savoy Society executes these fantastically.

“It’s as much about the personal relationships as it is about bigger themes,”  Ben Markbreiter, U2 Arts and the president of the Savoy Society, said. “The chorus is even more important.” 

Markbreiter is  correct; the chorus shines in this staging, providing background comedy, often in the form of slapstick, as well as intricate ensemble dances choreographed by Coralie Heiler, who is also a co-director. Performing in the chorus in a production of this scale is no easy undertaking. As is typical of Gilbert and Sullivan, the play is comprised of two cohorts divided down 19th century gender lines. A crowd of young women lines up, hoping to be chosen as the wife of one of the titular gondoliers in one scene and go to great lengths to be with their lovers at their own personal risk, and the divide is clear. As expected, it’s also a source of comedy through flirtation and rejection often in slapstick form. 

Sexism, racism, and imperialism go hand in hand with the play’s creation in the Victorian era. While Gilbert and Sullivan, to their credit, did challenge imperialist and monarchical ideas, they often did so at the expense of another culture, most notably in The Mikado, a critique of the establishment set in Imperial Japan. Racist stereotypes ensue. 

“You can’t avoid the racism or sexism” Markbreiter said, “but what we try to do is shine a light on the aspects that hold up their comedy, which is where a lot of the personal relationships come in, and emphasizing elements that don’t punch down.” 

Luckily for the show, Gilbert’s libretto has jokes that have survived the test of time, which, coupled with Heiler and co-director Stefania Bertrand’s staging, succeed in unveiling and critiquing dated attitudes behind them.

Though asking any busy student to take two and a half hours out of their schedule might seem like a tall order, Gondoliers is worth the commitment. It is the perfect combination of escapism, political satire, physical comedy, and catchy music in a space that often feels mysterious behind its heavy doors in the centre of the Arts Building. The Savoy Society’s production is a showcase of hard work and most importantly, fun. If you have ever caught yourself trying to sing the Modern Major General song, this is the show for you, and if not, this show might encourage you to learn.

The Gondoliers is playing in Moyse Hall Feb 14–22. Tickets are available at mcgillsavoy.tickit.ca.

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