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Ask the average person on the street (or opera lover, for that matter) about Gilbert and Sullivan, and you most certainly will not hear Patience mentioned.
Patience... or Bunthorne's Bride, the sixth collaboration between these two Victorian showmen, was created to mirror the excesses of the mid nineteenth-century English aesthetic movement. Due to the score's relative unfamiliarity, however, operatic ensembles today are prone to take license — firmly in line with current trends, anyway — and the Durham Savoyards, not to be outdone, did just that with their March 30 opening night, treating local audiences to a Patience long on humor though musically somewhat short on staying power.
While this operetta is something of a novelty to all but die-hard G&S aficionados, it is interesting to note that at its 1880 premiere, Richard D'Oyly-Carte, the impresario who championed these works, opened a new theater precisely for this purpose. Calling it the Savoy, devoted as it was to presenting Gilbert and Sullivan's witty social satires, the results quickly became know as the "Savoy" operas and those who sang in them "Savoyards."
We don't have a Savoy Theater here, but we do have the Carolina, and it suits the Durham Savoyards well. In this, the group's fourth-ever turn at Patience, director Derrick Ivey adopted a clever course of action: librettist William Gilbert's spin on British aestheticism would, in Ivey's vision, be turned around to countenance a similar period in American counter-culture, the Beat generation of the 1950s and '60s.
Thus, the ultimate English aesthete, in the person of Oscar Wilde, became something akin to the supreme "beatnik" poet Allen Ginsberg, the chorus girls were decked out in a cross between flower-power and go-go apparel (with a hint of London's Carnaby Street thrown in), while the sexual/spiritual revolution to follow was broadly hinted at, as well. It all added up to a most thoughtful and provocative blend of past and present, proving, as the French know, that things really do stay the same, the more they change.
The drama's central character, pompous Reginald Bunthorne — described in the plot as a "fleshly" poet — was safely entrusted to Steve Dobbins, who quite simply stole the show, chewing every bit of scenery within easy reach and singing well in his light baritone. Alongside him, Thea Tullman's Patience, a very unaesthetic milkmaid, drove onstage in her "Silver Churn Dairy" go-cart, decked in a red-checked skirt, drawled in effective Southernese, and sang rhapsodically. With extensive credits elsewhere, hers is unquestionably a voice that should be heard again and again, and in more appropriate vehicles, at that.
Ray Ubinger and Chris Newlon — the football-playing dragoon Colonel and Duke, respectively — managed their patter songs, where given, with aplomb, and acted with convincing sincerity. Jim Burnett, as the "idyllic" poet Archibald Grosvenor, appears to have depleted his vocal capital some time ago but speaks-sings effectively, delivering his spoken dialogue (as important as the other) with mellifluous skill. Dressed in a suede fringed jacket and tie-dyed pants, he looked as though he had walked straight out of Woodstock, providing yet another time-warp for the audience to consider. They did, obviously adoring every minute of Burnett's well-timed onstage shenanigans.
Among the "Rapturous" Maidens — Bunthorne and Grosvenor's groupies — Ann Marie Thomas and Karen Gray, the latter a towering transcendental Teuton, were vastly entertaining. Only the most critical observer would have noticed that the ladies — "Twenty lovesick maidens we," per their self-introduction — amounted to but fifteen, but no matter. Quality matters more than quantity.
Richard Dideriksen's set, strikingly similar to a Savoyards Mikado production from a few years back, represented an art gallery in the first act and a Peter Max-like sunburst in the second. Alan Riley Jones's orchestra suffered from intonation trouble and some ragged entrances in the overture but soon relaxed into its main concern, that of accompanying the singers, which it managed tentatively at best.
The aesthetic movement in art, so indelicately parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan, is, over 100 years later, still a laughable sideshow for observers, both the critical and the casual. This Durham Savoyards' production of Patience reminded its observers anew that artistic expression is but a magnifying glass used to shed light on the human condition in all its seriousness or — as here — utmost hilarity.