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Iolanthe continues a rich Gilbert & Sullivan tradition

Iolanthe: or, the Peer and the Peri

Directed by Marion Leeds Carroll.

Written by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

Music direction by David Grunberg.

Produced by Lon Williams '93.

La Sala de Puerto Rico.

April 2022, 8 p.m.; April 22, 2 p.m.

By Hur Koser
Staff Reporter

The MIT Gilbert and Sullivan players' two-act fairy tale, Iolanthe: or, the Peer and the Peri, has everything one could expect from such a story: an abundance of fairies, singing, love, magic and a happy ending.

Although the fairy Iolanthe (Meg Christian) gives her name to the play, she does not appear as a leading role. It is her half mortal/half fairy (only above the waist) son, Strephon (Neal Addicott '97), and his dear human lover, Phyllis (Emily Browder), who are the main characters.

The first act starts in the fairyland - an undetailed decor in the background, with vast blue and green space dominating the setting. Apparently, the fairyland is a beautiful corner of nature, with clean rivers, grasslands, deer, and frogs. (Yes, frogs!) Iolanthe had been banished from the fairyland for marrying a mortal, and she chose to live down a stream of water with frogs, which - for some curious reason - the other fairies find repulsive. Now that her banishment has lasted for 25 years, the fairies beg the Fairy Queen (Grace E. Colon G) to forgive her. The queen pardons Iolanthe, then Iolanthe introduces Strephon to her friends and her majesty. The Queen promises the half fairy son her special protection.

Though only a shepherdess, Phyllis is so beautiful that all the members of the House of Lords have become her suitors, and have asked her guardian the Lord Chancellor (Wayne Vargas) to choose a husband from among them. This is a difficult task for the Chancellor, since he himself adores the beautiful shepherdess. Phyllis, on the other hand, confesses that her love is promised to another man - the handsome young shepherd Strephon. Nevertheless, when Strephon comes to claim her, the Lord Chancellor, to the House of Lords' pleasure, declines his request on the premise that a mere shepherd is not a match for a Ward of Court.

Strephon is desperate. His mother tries to soothe him; nevertheless, Iolanthe, just like other fairies, appears to be a beautiful, 17-year old girl, and Phyllis believes that Strephon is being unfaithful to her. Out of sheer jealousy, she gets engaged to the two most prominent noblemen in the House of Lords. At this point, the fairies enter the scene, and things get interesting when they employ their magical powers over the lords, making Strephon their own representative in the parliament.

The second act gets even better. As every fairy tale promises, the play concludes with supposedly surprising, but anticipated, revelations and of course, a happy ending for everybody.

Iolanthe is supposed to be an opera, however, the space available in La Sala de Puerto Rico is barely sufficient even for a small-scale play, let alone for a real opera. The stage is too tiny to accommodate all the characters when they appear altogether and sing at the end of both acts. It is not very appealing for the audience to see the players squeezing into their places among the crowd on stage.

Even the small orchestra is crammed to the right-hand side of the stage, with the violinists barely avoiding elbow contact. It seems that Kresge Auditorium would have been a much better choice for this opera; at least the orchestra players would be happier! Indeed, Iolanthe is quite an entertaining play, and the stage director Marion Carroll should have come up with better arrangements to make the play accessible to a much greater audience.

What makes the Iolanthe even more pleasing is the richness of the musical melodies. The unification of different styles of music sometimes gives the audience the feeling that the play is a Broadway musical; at other times, it is reminiscent of Mozart's Magic Flute. Here, musical director David Grunberg and his orchestra deserve praise. Though the musical harmony was occasionally disturbed by the out-of-tune utterings of the trumpets, overall, the orchestra did a fine job.

Of course, this is not to ignore the cast itself. The two and a half hours is especially worthwhile to listen to the magnificent voice of Browder as Phyllis. It is also worth seeing Vargas' performance as the mean, old Lord Chancellor. Apparently a great deal of effort was put into this performance by every actor and actress. In short, Iolanthe is a good option to consider for an entertaining Saturday afternoon or evening.