I'd recount the plot of The Grand Duke, which the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society is currently performing, but this week's Weekly is only going to be 116 pages. Suffice it to say that Ludwig, lead comedian of a theater troupe, becomes head of the tiny Grand Duchy of Pfennig-Halbpfennig for a day and encounters four women who all (quite plausibly) claim him as their husband.
Calling cards: Garrett Brown (left) and David Ross in The Grand Duke.
The Grand Duke
Bagley Wright Theater, through July 24
This comic opera, which premiered in 1896, was the last collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, and is the least-often performed. It's not their weakest work—that title, I think, belongs to The Sorcerer—but it is profoundly flawed. Gilbert crammed his libretto with mechanical plot devices—contracts, ancient statutes, betrothals-in-infancy—which jerk the characters around like puppets on strings. This has two serious consequences: First, these devices require yards and yards of expository dialogue, and second, the operetta is devoid of pathos—those genuinely affecting and tender moments that in Gilbert and Sullivan's best work provide such effective contrast to their topsy-turvy comedy.
It's sloppily constructed, too; much is made in Act I of a conspiracy to overthrow the real Grand Duke, a subplot utterly forgotten by the show's end. Gilbert also brings in, at the 11th hour, a completely new set of characters, the Prince and Princess of Monte Carlo and their retinue. I hope Jeff Caldwell and Jennifer Rae take it as no insult that despite their considerable comic talent and likability, their long slapstick scene so late in the game is sheer tedium.
But then the Prince does get the score's best solo number, a "Roulette Song" of Verdian vigor. If Sullivan's well of memorable tunes had nearly run dry by 1896, his orchestrational skill had peaked, and The Grand Duke contains several moments of unprecedented color. Producer Mike Storie and music director Alan Lund researched Sullivan's own manuscript score, rescuing his original intentions from makework orchestrations by others that had accumulated over the years.
The Society's production is broad (extremely) in style and busy (hyperactively) in staging; hardly a line is spoken without the character crossing the stage or gesturing zanily. On the other hand, the book warrants it—it's less subtly elegant and closer to musical comedy, perhaps, than any other Gilbert show. The production points up this Broadway connection by setting the story in 1934, with the marcelled hair and Charleston moves to match. For all its frenzy, the performance is tight as a drum, with skilled and thoroughly professional turns by all, especially Garrett Brown as Ludwig, Christine Peters as the Dietrich-esque actress Julia, David Ross as the Grand Duke, and Sharon Lone-Browder in the usual G&S heavy-alto role of the Countess. The singing throughout, from soloists and chorus, is exemplary, except—a big except—for the diction, especially vital in a show this unfamiliar. Very few in the audience will be as intimate with every syllable as they might be with The Pirates of Penzance or H.M.S. Pinafore.