For the last quarter of the 19th century, the comic operettas of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were London’s box-office blockbusters. Their producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, built the swanky Savoy Theatre — lit by then-newfangled electricity — to mount the shows with his professional troupe. But audience members and aspiring thespians also wanted to play with Gilbert’s clever lyrics and Sullivan’s catchy tunes. Piano scores and libretti sold tens of thousands of copies, as touring companies spread the G&S craze throughout the English-speaking world.
D’Oyly Carte also pioneered licensing rights to amateur theatrical groups. As a result, community theater grew in popularity, with the operettas a cornerstone of the repertoire. In central Vermont, Gilbert and Sullivan has been a season-opening tradition at Unadilla Theatre since 1984. The current production of The Gondoliers (1889) effervesces with energy from the well-prepped cast of 10 leads and 21 choristers. While director Caleb Pitkin draws ebullient performances from the entire ensemble, the sumptuous singing and winsome stage presence of Charlie and Neil Cerutti make the show a must-see.
The Cerutti siblings play goodhearted gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri, fetching fratelli for whom “every maid in Venice sighs.” To give all the lovestruck lasses an equal shot at nuptial nirvana, the brothers blindfold themselves to choose brides randomly from the chorus of cooing cuties. Fate (certainly not peeking) delivers each his fave. The betrothed couples marry at once, whereupon Gilbert dives into his bag of serpentine plot twists. Can’t have a happy ending after just a few songs!
Unbeknownst to the best-bud bros, one was adopted as an infant, a prince hidden with a lowly gondolier’s family. This brother now inherits the throne of the recently deceased King of Barataria. But nobody knows which of the two was the royal tot.
While Venice’s Grand Inquisitor searches for the long-lost baby nurse to parse the Palmieris’ paternity, the boatmen try to rule Barataria together as antimonarchical monarchs. Meanwhile, the demanding Spanish Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro (Bull Place) arrive in Venice with their daughter, Casilda, who was wed to the prince by proxy when both were bambini.
Of course, it takes lots of sparkling songs and delicious dialogue to sort out the three wives, two hubbies and one king and get to the inevitable, but surprising, resolution. During the quartet “In a Contemplative Fashion,” the co-kings and their vexed Venetian brides agree that “Quiet, calm deliberation / Disentangles every knot.” Yet anxiety grows as each confides misgivings to the audience. Sullivan weaves together these separate threads with Mozartian dexterity.
This delicate quartet demonstrates the wonderful strengths of Unadilla’s production. The intimacy and clarion acoustics of the rustic theater make it an ideal venue to hear every word and note, and to see each actor’s expressions. Credit music director Neil Cerutti — who pulls double duty behind the scenes, as a half-dozen cast members do — for coaching crisp diction on the often tongue-twisting tunes. He applies a high musical standard to his singers, who range in age from 8 to 80 and include rookies who have never before sung in public, as well as seasoned G&S vets.
An outstanding “orchestra” of one helps the singers croon with confidence. Alison Cerutti, Neil’s wife, plays the entire score from the piano. Simply put, she kicks ass at the keyboard. Her athletic accompaniment keeps the comedic pace frisky.
Director Pitkin, who also plays the Inquisitor with devilish glee, has imbued his ensemble with the essence of making G&S soar: The hilarity arises from playing the characters and their predicaments sincerely. He and choreographer Ellen Cooke move the large cast around the not-so-large stage in simple but eye-catching ways. My fave: the male chorus arrayed in two staggered rows by height, from 6’7” Nathan Spencer to 4’ Justin Murray.
Pitkin has the actors make eye contact with theatergoers, who sit just a few feet away, and sing from the front of the stage whenever possible. Using these techniques to wonderful effect are the sonorous Cerutti sibs. Their buttery vocal blend and charming, malleable facial expressions practically seduce audience members into the story. The Ceruttis sing the Montpelier phone book? Tell me when, ’cause I’m there.
Also delightful is the foursome portraying the snooty Plaza Toro clan. Marek Pyka, as the Duke, and Irene Facciolo, as the Duchess, embrace the fallen nobles’ shameless venality with Palin-esque relish. Rachael Sanguinetti, as daughter Casilda, and Dana Lawrence, as family servant Luiz, valiantly try to fight the couple’s class-defying, forbidden love. They sing their duets with honeyed harmonies. Sanguinetti has an exceptionally rich tone for an 18-year-old recent high school grad.
The Gondoliers at Unadilla is a joyous ride because every member of the cast exudes vibrance onstage. The elementary school kids and grandmothers; the farmer, psychologist, businessman and town clerk — all have mastered the tricky material because they love it. In the cozy space, the audience experiences the true magic of musical theater. Not the wizardry of today’s million-dollar, high-tech Broadway stagecraft, but the enchantment of smart lyrics and artful songs performed with heart.
Many of the same players will also appear in Trial by Jury (1875) and H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) at the Plainfield Opera House later this month. The more G&S the merrier, says this former Jury member.
The Gondoliers, directed by Caleb Pitkin. Unadilla Theatre, East Calais. July 9-11 & 15-17, 7:30 p.m. $20. unadilla.org