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Candide

Iolanthe

By New York City
It doesn't look promising at all. You walk down a cinder-block stairway to a church basement, where a wall phone is festooned with the legend "Welcome Thee to Fairyland." Instead of a proscenium setup, the audience is crowded onto the stage itself, seated on 30-odd metal folding chairs placed on risers and facing a flimsy green backdrop that looks something like the "Enchanted Forest" set from that I Love Lucy episode. Taped Gilbert & Sullivan music is playing but the live orchestra consists of one electric piano perched precariously at a corner of the stage. It seems like Theater Ten Ten's Iolanthe is going to be a long afternoon.

A chorus of only three lady fairies flits on, clad in green, blue, and yellow, turning cartwheels and launching into "Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither." They warble strongly and sweetly with mad glints in their eyes and one's trepidation starts to melt. It dissipates entirely with the entrance of Cristiane Young as the Fairy Queen. Stout and imperious, with the profile of a Sacajawea dollar and the ringiest contralto this side of the D'Oyly Carte, Young was clearly born to the repertoire of large, dour G&S women. Her fairy crown may be made of dime-store paper flowers and her magic wand may have come from Toys 'R' Us but, dammit, she thinks she's a fairy queen -- and so do we.

Young is by far the largest commodity in this postage-stamp Iolanthe but the production's compactness works curiously in its favor. Every syllable is audible (a rarity in G&S), Sullivan's harmonies come through as they never do when sung by larger choruses -- and, best of all, director-choreographer Judith Jarosz conveys her love and admiration for this operetta without treating it like a museum piece or mistreating it as a parade of eyebrow-wriggling "fairy" jokes. Modern directors often choose the latter path with Iolanthe mining it for visual puns and gags about effeminacy; Jarosz has found unexpected humor elsewhere. The cast members have drunk deep of the silly waters and their spirit is infectious. They make real eye contact with the audience, inviting us to share in the smart nonsense; one woman in the audience was giggling so helplessly during the second act that her whole section joined in, and then the whole other section.

Jarosz' innovative touches are small but delectable. "Something AW-ful!" pipes one of the fairies in a nasal Pelham Parkway accent, speaking of the heroine: "She married a MAW-tal!" When Iolanthe enters, sprung from a spring and wrapped in water-weeds, a large stuffed frog perches on her shoulder. Jaquelyn Baker's Iolanthe has a lovely presence and the fresh-scrubbed look of a young Mary Steenburgen; when she prepares to sacrifice her life for her son's sake in Act II, she's unexpectedly touching. As Strephon, her half-mortal son, Frederick Hamilton hasn't quite the sense of the absurd that the rest of the cast boasts but his supple tenor and rock-star posturings contribute to the fun. And as Phyllis, his fiancée, Kelly Cooper combines a soprano of at least New York City Opera caliber with Sarah Jessica Parker's looks and comedic chops -- she never simply enters, she sweeps onto the stage. (Someone get this young lady an Equity card at once!)

This is one of those lucky productions wherein everyone deserves to be singled out. Greg Horton enacts the haughty, buffoonish Lord Chancellor to perfection; he also delivers "Love, Unrequited, Robs Me of My Rest" with every single word intelligible, and it's the first time I've ever heard that. David Tillistrand, as Private Willis, is a poker-faced natural comedian with resonant low notes. As rival MPs, Nicholas Monglardo-Cooper and Morgan Sills bring out the Gilbertian political satire of their roles without stomping it into the Park Avenue subcellars below. And the fairy chorus of Lisa Riegel, Sarah Zeitler, and Ruth Weber proves that, sometimes, less is indeed more in G&S.

The same could be said of the production as a whole. On an obviously slim budget, Joanne Haas has whipped up some nimble fairy costumes plus paper-and-Velcro wings for everyone at the finale, including musical director Matt Castle. George Gountas's lighting includes a couple of startling special effects. Jarosz' staging isn't any great shakes but it's spare and efficient, with entrances through the house that foster cast-audience intimacy. The singing is uniformly excellent. While this Iolanthe is short on professional gloss, it makes more elaborate productions look like ungainly clodhoppers. It's surprising how much fun can sometimes be had in church basements.


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