ELLSWORTH — It has been a decade or so since the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Maine has taken us on a trip to Venice aboard “The Gondoliers” with its side trip to the realm of Barataria. I had forgotten what a fun, topsy-turvy musical excursion it is, filled with colorful characters, clever songs, impossible plot twists and crazy coincidences.
I, and other operetta lovers, were delightfully reminded of this fact when “The Gondoliers” returned last weekend to The Grand, with its tale of a missing prince, a reluctant bride, a secret love affair, and a pair of pompous, but poor Spanish royals.
And, oh rapture! it all began with a lively overture by a full live orchestra! Giving the audience the full G&S experience with trilling flutes, plaintive oboes and bassoons, plucky violins, blaring brasses, booming drums. It was just splendid with Rebecca Edmondson conducting from her piano.
Act One opened with a bevy of flower-bearing beauties singing joyfully about a pair of Gondolier bachelors whom they each hope would choose them as their brides. Here and throughout the show, both the female and male choruses sounded terrific, but as is often the case with these wordy G&S tunes, it was hard to make out the words. Not to worry, though. What is lost in the choral translation is easily discerned by Dorothy Wheatcraft’s explicit direction and the main characters who reiterate the important plot lines in their excellently enunciated solos, duets, trios and quartets.
Joe Marshall as a jolly gondolier is the first to step up and perform this duty with his booming baritone, setting us all at ease, knowing that we were in good hands for the ride.
Still, those unfamiliar with the story might want to read the synopsis in the program before the curtain opens.
Speaking of main characters, there were a bunch of ’em. And Wheatcraft is blessed with just the right number of talented singers and actors to fill these fun roles.
Let’s start with the sexy gondolier brothers and would-be kings (one of which is believed to be the missing prince). Marco and Giuseppe are played with such hilarious ineptitude by Michael Smith and Pepin Mittelhauser, bringing to mind those two amigos Martin Short and Steve Martin.
As goofy as these two bros are, they sure can sing. Mittelhauser’s powerful baritone is a treat, and while Smith’s tenor is more of the Irish pub variety than the operatic sort, it works perfectly for his character.
Their lucky brides — sweet soprano Gianetta (Lauren Billings) and robust mezzo Tessa (Rebecca Goff) — are fun matches, although Billings needs to pump up her volume. Her voice is so lovely it’s frustrating when we can’t hear it.
We had no problem hearing Aiden Pasha, who plays the Grand Inquisitor and absconds with the infant prince and sets this whole complicated kerfuffle in motion. His powerful baritone gets better every year and it was wonderful to see him step into this leading role.
As the financially challenged Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro, Roland Dube and Sandy Blanchette are a marvelous mismatch as they bicker over, well, everything, save the necessity of getting their daughter’s marriage to the prince signed, sealed and delivered.
And now we come to my favorite characters in the show. The once and future queen, Casilda, (Celeste Mittelhauser) and her drummer boy lover Luiz (Jason Wilkes.) Mittelhauser is a scream as the pinch-faced, eye-rolling Casilda, who has just learned, to her horror, that she was married off as an infant to the baby prince. When we first meet her, she is a perfect pill. But when she is finally left alone with the obedient drummer, Luiz, she is transformed into a thing of hope and feathers — a beautiful dove released from her cage. Oh, it is a wonder to see. If these two make an odd couple physically, their gorgeous voices are a perfect fit. Her soaring soprano, as good as any D’Oyly Carte pro, his heart-melting lyric tenor are delicious alone, but together make up a musical feast. The only sadness here is that Messrs. G&S didn’t give them more songs to sing in this story.
Well, of course, spoiler alert, everything eventually sorts itself out and although the second act dragged just a tad, it really was a fun journey.
The Venice set seemed a bit drab initially, but then all those girls arrive with flowers and that helps considerably, as does the warm lighting. The seaside Barataria set could use a little more stage dressing (and that picnic table?), but here Stephanie Urquhart Dumas came to the rescue with her costuming. All those wonderful cutaway jackets and Casilda’s gorgeous white gown, oh golly!
One more sad thing. The audience for the Sunday matinee was hugely responsive, giving the cast and orchestra a standing ovation, but they were sparse in numbers. This may have been due to all the ice the latest storm left us with. If so, “The Gondoliers” is well worth the price of a ticket and a pair of crampons (which everyone should have on their boots anyway.)
The final three shows are this weekend at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb 14, and at 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Feb. 15-16. Tickets cost $20 for adults and seniors and $5for students (18 and under). For more info, call 667-9500 and visit grandonline.org.