Some opening night missteps at ‘Gondoliers,’ but all in all another solid performance from UMGASS crew

By Roger LeLievregodos
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Apr. 12, 2014)

You could almost hear the collective groan when, at the opening of “The Gondoliers” Thursday night, an announcement proclaimed that due to unforeseen circumstances the role of one of the title boatmen would be played by the show’s artistic director.

Not to worry. University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society vet Tom Ciluffo was more than up to the task. The comic opera runs through Sunday and also next Thursday-Sunday at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

The story of “Gondoliers” is based on a familiar Gilbert and Sullivan topsy-turvy plot twist. No one – least of all their wives – really knows whether Marco (Ciluffo) or Giuseppe (Jesus Vincente Murillo) is the true ruler of the island kingdom of Barataria. Only the late arrival of the true king’s nursemaid unearths the truth. Meanwhile, there’s a betrothed-at-birth would-be queen to consider, not to mention her beloved, who is but a lowly servant. Or is he?

It’s a tangled love hexagon to be sure, but thankfully there’s a typical Gilbert & Sullivan happy ending once the identities are sorted.

Maybe it was opening night, but Thursday’s performance took a while to find its footing. Maybe that was because the first 20 minutes or so of Act I are sung through with no dialog. The chorus seemed sluggish, lines were botched, light cues were sloppy and the curtain started coming down from the top instead of up from the bottom. But as the first act got going, and especially with the arrival of the seasoned pro Phillip Rhodes (Don Alhambra de Bolero), the pace smoothed out considerably.

Ciluffo and Murillo had a real chemistry that helped sell the idea they were gondolier brothers. It was hard to believe Ciluffo was a stand-in he was so proficient, and both have beautiful tenor and baritone voices! Rhodes made for an authoritative grand inquisitor and appeared to relish his role. It didn’t hurt that all three have some serious musical credentials from which to draw. The same can be said for Jeremy Williams, who played his Duke of Plaza-Toro fluently and with flourish.

Marina Renee Hogue (Gianetta) and Amanda O’Toole (Tessa) brought plenty of personality as well as terrific voices to their roles as brides to the young gondoliers, as did Madeline Thibault (Casilda), the queen in waiting. All have professional training and anyone who thinks UMGASS is a group of amateur thespians should think again.

The set was colorful without being gaudy and the costumes were the same. I especially liked the mask of many faces one gentleman was sporting. The choreography was well executed for the all-too-short “Dance A Cachucha,” and the orchestra (Rodrigo Ruiz, music director) was darned near perfect, as is usually the case with UMGASS shows.

The work, first performed in 1889, came at a time when Gilbert and Sullivan were at artistic odds, with Sullivan aspiring to write a grand opera and Gilbert wanting to make operettas that sold. They came to a compromise, which is probably why “Gondoliers’ has such an operatic score and is one of their most sung-though works.

Although not as well known as some of G&S’s other productions, “The Gondoliers” popular in its day, and it’s easy to see why. It’s fun, accessible, and the perfect excuse for a springtime visit to the imaginary kingdom of Barataria.

For tickets: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/560456

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