Imagine the Marx Brothers crossed with The Ring of the Nibelung, with a dash of Pirates of the Caribbean thrown in. That is the kind of experience light-opera lovers have in store when the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players comes to City Center for its annual January run — which in 2008 is being supplemented for the first time ever with a second two-week season in June, essentially doubling the fun.
More brilliant patter, more inspired repartee, more nimble footwork, more soaring arias, more harmonically lush and colorful scores. It is, it is a glorious thing.
Under the baton of longtime artistic director and general manager Albert Bergeret, whom New York magazine has called "the leading custodian of the G&S classics," the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) has risen from its roots in street theatre in the neighborhood of Barnard College and Columbia University to become the preeminent professional G&S repertory ensemble in North America. Acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for keeping the flame alive, NYGASP has, for more than three decades, continuously updated the G&S canon with topical references without reinventing the original premises, and, at the same time, preserved the classical precision of the voices and music. (Sullivan's scores need no revision.)
In the year ahead, beginning with its traditional New Year's Eve champagne gala at Symphony Space, the company will strike a balance of Gilbert & Sullivan's Big Three — The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Mikado — with less frequently performed but notable G&S works like Princess Ida, Trial by Jury, and The Gondoliers. (For a complete schedule go to www.nygasp.org.)
The richly romantic Pirates, with its whirling skirts, roguish seamen, plodding policemen, and the sort of complex drollery and stagecraft not to be found in movies or television, will be at the center of both the January and June seasons, with a total of seven performances.
"The Pirate King in Penzance was the original dissolute, comically vain, ironic pirate character," Bergeret notes. "First Kevin Kline, then Johnny Depp took this idea to a new level. We think the interest in Pirates of the Caribbean definitely opens up a whole new audience for The Pirates of Penzance."
Princess Ida, a battle of the sexes in the gimlet-eyed Gilbertian manner, is set at a women-only university founded by a romantically frustrated princess. Yet it somehow resonates and foreshadows the main issues and double-binds of modern feminism (long before feminism was even part of the language). In the end, both feminism and true love are reconciled.
"The music is grand-opera-ish," says Bergeret, "with dynamic choruses and moving soprano arias." Princess Ida is to be performed January 4, 6, and 12.
The Gondoliers, set in the mythical monarchy of Barataria, is a treasure of the G&S oeuvre with an especially beautiful score. Its comically bankrupt Duke of Plaza-Toro certainly plowed the seas for the likes of Rufus T. Firefly, as played by Groucho Marx (a huge G&S fan) in Duck Soup. The mock musical pageantry of The Gondoliers is clearly echoed in the cracked fantasy kingdom of Groucho's Freedonia. Gondoliers goes on the boards June 12, 14, and 15.
The short operetta Trial by Jury, a send-up of the legal system, will be coupled with a not-to-be-missed revue, G&S a la Carte, to be presented one night only, January 10. Rounding out the lineup are the immortal masterpieces The Mikado (January 12, and June 8 and 10) and H.M.S. Pinafore (June 6, 8, 10, and 11).
Youthful spirits infuse the company this season, in the cast and behind the scenes. Bergeret has brought in a young accomplice, David Wannen, 29, who serves not only as assistant general manager to the company but also as a dashing Pirate King, among other roles, onstage.
"I get to have a hand in all aspects of the business — marketing, sales, strategic management, and acting," says Wannen, a classically trained bass-baritone and impresario-in-the-making. He regards the rigors of comic opera as "one of the most pure feats of talent — acting, comic timing, and singing — that there is."
As ever, master performers like Stephen Quint (the very model of a modern Major General) and Keith Jurosko (more than a "mete"-and-potatoes Mikado) will be twitting and chaffing each other onstage, as they draw on decades of perfecting and reimagining their roles. But the veterans are also mentoring talented newcomers, including Wannen and tenor Colm Fitzmaurice, who is to play four romantic leads in the current repertory.
Reaching out to a new generation, the company has been active in the schools, putting on shows and workshops, including a residency this fall at the Horace Mann School in Riverdale. Two special City Center matinees, on January 8 and 9, will be free to public school groups.
"We'll pack the place," Bergeret says. "We tend to play things a little broader, with more physical comedy. Kids really get it."
When the world is too much with us, when the icy diamond air of January and the concrete spires begin to oppress, City Center becomes a midwinter refuge of bracing comedy and musical warmth. So give three cheers (and one cheer more) as our leading light-opera company expands to four weeks, a twofold increase in laughter and joy.
Woody Hochswender is a former reporter for The New York Times and columnist for Harper's Bazaar.