Twenty-five years before the beginning of the Opera, the Fairy Iolanthe has been sentenced to banishment by the Fairy Queen for the capital crime of marrying a mortal man. However, the Fairy Queen has a softening of heart and summons Iolanthe to the land of the fairies where she divulges that her son Strephon is a Fairy from the waist up, however is mortal from the waist down.
Strephon is in love with the Lord Chancellors ward Phyllis, who does not know of Strephon’s fairy heritage. Strephon suffers a blow when the Lord Chancellor refuses to allow him to marry Phyllis, not only because he does not believe that Strephon, a mere Shepard is worthy, but also because he and the entirety of Britain’s house of Lords wish to marry her themselves. The Fairies and the Lords inevitably cross paths and classic Gilbert and Sullivan silliness ensues.
Iolanthe is certainly a strange beast, and I was pleased to see that director Diana Burleigh did not shy away from the surreal. The curtain opened to reveal a blackened stage covered in fairy lights behind a screen that made the twinkling lights surrounding the fairies cover the front and back of the stage producing great depth and setting a wonderful first impression. This then peeled back to reveal bushes made of balloons and stark white and red spotted stairs far removed from traditional settings which was refreshing. Interval saw a set change to a night scene of London which featured an impressive Big Ben with illuminated clock face tied together in the surreal with act one by silver balloon stars. The crossover of traditional costuming with an almost cartoonish setting was unexpected and worked well. It is a shame that this modern energy did not carry over to direction and choreography, which was far more on the traditional and often seeing cast take a place on the stage and delivering entire scenes or songs front and centre and with simple minimal movement.
Costuming by Susan Marshall was particularly impressive. Highlights were certainly the robes of the House of Lords and the High Chancellor, and also the many colours of the Fairies who also carried wands that transform into arrow heads when entering a confrontation.
Musical Director Greg Hannan conducted a well-balanced orchestra, and I was particularly impressed with how well they caught a couple of missed entries of the singers, showing great reflexes. Hannan clearly has a great understanding of the genre, the sound was light on its feet and did much to provide a good sense of pace and humour to Iolanthe. With regards to vocals, my only gripe was diction within the larger chorus numbers in which passages were oftentimes blurred.
The main calling card of Iolanthe are the cast. Of particular note was Alfred Anderson as Earl Mountararat who had much opportunity to flex his rich Baritone.
Andrew McGrail is heartfelt and relatable as Strephon, and manages to provide some grounding in the shows otherwise larger than life characters.
Alexandra Amerides provides an impressive Contralto voice as the Fairy queen and managed to portray a strong willed and all powerful queen incredibly well while also showing her merciful nature within, especially when considering her young age and that the role is often portrayed by someone much older.
Nadia Migliardi provides an understated and sweet interpretation of the title Fairy Iolanthe. A particularly touching moment was Migliardi’s rendition of “My Lord, a suppliant at your feet.”
Stephanie Morgan and Rebecca Kmit who played the featured chorus roles of Celia and Leila respectively never dropped their high energy, and were oftentimes a clear standout from the crowd.
Standing head and shoulders above the rest was Ron Pidcock as the Lord Chancellor. Pidcock was whimsical and high energy, moved incredibly well and provided much of the humour of the show. A particular highlight was Pidcocks masterful execution of the patter song “When you’re lying awake.”
Gilbert and Sullivan fans will find lots of gems here, the surrealist setting is refreshing while not straying too far from a traditional Gilbert and Sullivan fans expectations.