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‘Iolanthe’ Preview: Gilbert and Sullivan's Latest is ‘Beautiful and Sensitive, Yet Hilarious’

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In their decades-long history, the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players have brought their audiences to all the corners of the United Kingdom and across half of the globe. This time is no different: From Nov. 10 to Nov. 13, they are transforming the stage of the Agassiz Theater into the Palace of Westminster and its environs in their production of “Iolanthe.”

“Iolanthe” is the story of a young shepherd, Strephon, who wants to marry Phyllis, a ward of the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. Phyllis does not know that Strephon is half-fairy, and when she sees Strephon kissing a seemingly young woman, she assumes the worst. But her “rival” turns out to be none other than Strephon’s own mother, Iolanthe, who is an eternally young fairy. Phyllis turns to her other suitors — who include half of the House of Lords and her own guardian — leading to a conflict between the peers and the fairies.

The show is as much a love story as a witty satire of Victorian-era law, society, and government, but “Iolanthe”’s main strength might be its music.

“There are a lot of references in the score to contemporaries and predecessors of Sullivan as a composer, including Wagner, Verdi and Bellini, and I'm excited to channel the spirits of those composers in the music,” said music director Arhan Kumar ’23.

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“[It’s] some of the best music that Gilbert and Sullivan ever wrote,” said creative director Dora Woodruff ’24.

Kumar, whose own artistic background is in opera singing, pointed toward the vocals as one of “Iolanthe”’s highlights.

“I'm really excited about the robust singing that everyone is bringing to the stage. It isn't an easy thing, especially for undergraduates who may or may not have extensive training in singing to really wrestle with a 25 piece orchestra,” Kumar said.

The mention of the orchestra is crucial, as G&S is one of the few performing arts organizations on campus devoted equally to acting and music. “We have a full wind section … brass instruments, string section,” Woodruff said. “It’s a legitimate orchestra.”

Although G&S rose up to the challenge of adapting “Iolanthe,” some changes — primarily stemming from a concern about the length — had to be made to bring it to a Harvard audience.

“It's a show that has some really beautiful music [but] it's also a show that can be light on plot sometimes,” said stage director Nicholas C. Fahy ’23. “We wanted to make sure that when our audience comes into and out of the theater, they feel like [we] use the right amount of words to deliver the right amount of content.”

Still, the largest source of problems was not “Iolanthe”’s libretto or score, but rather the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the group continued performing during the Covid-19 pandemic and after, it did so with a markedly different repertoire — including Sullivan’s solo one-act opera “Cox and Box,” and the original “Milkmaid” — and on a smaller scale.

“I think that coming out of the Covid pandemic, a lot of student organizations like Gilbert and Sullivan don't have the membership that they used to,” Fahy said. “That's just created this vacuum of institutional knowledge: Who are the people who can do costumes? And who are the people who know how to do props? And different things like that.”

But the group wasn’t caught unawares, and, in anticipation of the difficulties of the ambitious task, began preparing all the way back in the spring.

“I think we had a good roadmap that we wanted to follow by the time August came,” Kumar said.

Although, as executive producer Lucas J. Walsh ’24 said, there were “a lot of complications,” the production team more than delivered with hand-painted set elements and elaborate costumes.

“I'm just really excited to see it all coalescing, being able to sit down during the production and watch what this incredible team has put together,” Walsh said.

“Iolanthe” is a labor of love, a result of a process that began months before the September casting. Is it worth seeing?

“I think it is,” Kumar said. “It is something that people will not find in other shows.”

“You get to see some of the funniest, best singing people on campus,” Walsh added.

—Staff wirter Zachary J. Lech can be reached at zachary.lech@thecrimson.com.

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