Iolanthe

Snow last night, first time it’s stuck in quite a while. But only a few inches, not like the East Coast.

This year the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Co., a nonprofit based in Hyde Park that does performances one weekend of the year at the University of Chicago’s handsome Mandell Hall, produced Iolanthe. I have fond memories of the company’s Yeomen of the Guard, which Lilly and I saw two years ago, so we all went on Friday (except Lilly, whose spring break hasn’t started yet).

img462Like last time, we ate at Salonica’s first. The face on the telephone pole is still down the street, on the way to the theater.

The show was just as much fun as Yeomen. More, since I knew some of the songs better, including everyone’s favorite lord-marching-trumpets-braying number, which saw a mellifluous chorus of lords spill out from the stage and into the aisles and back, and the renowned patter song about insomnia and the weird dreams of shallow and disturbed sleep.

According to The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan by Ian C. Bradley, parts of which are online, “[Gilbert] had, in fact, experimented with the metre later used for the nightmare song in a poem entitled ‘Sixty-Three and Sixty-Four,’ which appeared in Fun in 1864 and which began:

Oh, you who complain that the drawing’s insane, or too much for your noodles have found it.
But listen a minute, I’ll tell you what’s in it — completely explain and expound it.

An earlier poem by Gilbert, ‘The Return from My Berth,’ which appeared in Punch in October 1864, gives a more lurid account of a Channel crossing:

The big Channel steamer is rolling,
Frenchmen around me are bilious and fat
And prone on the floor are behaving unheedingly,
It’s a ‘sick transit,’ but never mind that!

Matthan Ring Black was in fine form with the patter, and the rest of his Lord Chancellor part. Everyone else did very well, but I was especially taken with Claire DiVizio, who did the Fairy Queen, and David Govertsen, who not only amused everyone with Private Willis’ single song, but stood perfectly still in the lobby in his bright red guard uniform as the audience filed in. Perhaps that’s a G&S tradition I don’t know about, but in any case he was there.

Private Willis also got the biggest laugh of the evening:

That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!

Of course, there’s Victorian context to that, but a modern one as well.

Yuriko liked it, and Ann, who’s developing a taste for musical theater, said she enjoyed the show a lot. I never had such a taste as a teenager, though I did (mostly) enjoy the successive senior plays put on at my high school toward the end of each school year, all of which happened to be musicals: Bye Bye Birdie, The Mikado, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story.

One more thing, which if I knew, I’d forgotten: Iolanthe apparently inspired Chief Justice William Rehnquist to add gold stripes to his robe in 1995. Guess he decided that a powdered wig as well would be a bit much.

Thursday Bits

A lot of rain on Sunday and then more on Monday, creating a week of puddles and mud as temps never quite made it down to freezing during the day. My kind of winter. No risk of slipping on ice, though I did nearly slip on a patch of mud in the yard the other day.

One more picture from Saturday: a street band at the corner of Washington and Wabash who call themselves Chicago Traffic Jam.

Chicago Traffic Jam Dec 12, 2015Jam is right. When we saw them, they were jamming, doing a bang-up job on a ’70s instrumental that I recognized, but couldn’t remember the name of. I pitched a dollar coin in their bucket.

I saw a trailer for Gods of Egypt on YouTube not long ago. From the looks of it, the title’s not quite right. CGI Egypt might be better. Could be one of those movies in which “tell a good story” is about fourth or fifth on the list on the director’s list of things to do, while “make it look badass” is first. Without more information, there’s little chance I’ll spend money to find out. Just another benefit of not being 15 anymore.

Then again, I don’t remember rushing off to any fool movie when I was 15. But the industry was different then.

I missed the obituary of Gene Patton earlier this year, but here it is. RIP, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Looks like you had a fun 15 minutes of fame.

The Yeomen of the Guard

The Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Co. drew a solid crowd for the matinee of The Yeomen of the Guard on Sunday afternoon. Not a full house, but a decent turnout, including a small busload of seniors from somewhere or other. But unlike at some events, I wasn’t one of the younger members of the crowd. There was a good mix of ages.

Yeomen of the Guard 2015Mandel Hall was the venue. A handsome place on the University of Chicago campus — I’d like to see it in this light — and almost as old as Yeomen, since it was originally designed in 1903 by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. Not the Savoy, but what is?

Though done at a college, the show wasn’t collegiate. The highly accomplished company goes back to 1960, and, according to the program notes, “has a policy of alternating the signature operas with the obscure, taking into consideration anniversary years and programming by other local companies.” This was its seventh production of Yeomen, with HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Gondoliers also done that many times over the years. (At the other end of the spectrum, Utopia, Limited and The Grand Duke have been done once each in 55 years.)

Good fun, as G&S should be, but also not quite as much levity as you’d expect in a romantic romp of switched identities, instant attractions, and lines like this: “These allusions to my professional duties are in doubtful taste. I didn’t become a head-jailer because I like head-jailing. I didn’t become an assistant-tormentor because I like assistant-tormenting. We can’t all be sorcerers, you know.”

Spoken by Wilfred, the head jailer and assistant tormentor of the Tower, portrayed by Brad Jungwirth, a bald slab of a baritone, whose voice and character I enjoyed the most. The rest of the cast turned in fine performances as well, in as much as I’m qualified to judge, as did the University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra.

Maybe there should be more romantic comedies in which love doesn’t quite conquer all, as in Yeomen. After all, it ends with three couples paired up, two of which involve less-than-enthusiastic participants, and one of which leaves a sympathetic character (the merryman Jack Point) as the odd man out, much to his anguish. Then again, I guess a movie that ended that way wouldn’t test very well among focus groups.

Item From the Past: Gettysburg

Got a postcard from my nephew Dees last week, the nephew who’s the drummer for Sons of Fathers. It describes the 12th Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival earlier this month, in which the band participated. The photo on the right depicts the only known first-name Deeses of the world, together about this time last year, when Sons of Fathers played at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, Ill., and I went out to see them. He’s the hale fellow with facial hair.

A little further in the past – 1991 – I found myself driving from Boston to Chicago during this time of year, and I stopped at Gettysburg National Military Park. I missed the 128th anniversary of the battle by a few days, and presumably whatever commemoration events they had. I thought of that when I was reminded by the newspaper today that the 150th anniversary of the battle is upon us, beginning tomorrow, of course.

There were some other visitors when I was there, but not too many.  It was a hot day, fittingly, since it was a high-summer battle, which must have added to the misery. This image captures the summer conditions of the site pretty well, besides the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Monument, which has its own intricate history, and which was knocked over by high winds only last week.

Here’s another view of the Angle – the stone wall that Pickett’s men managed to reach (Lewis Addison Armistead’s men, but let’s not be too pedantic).

I haven’t seen one of these quarters yet, though I’ve been noticing a number of national park quarters in change lately.

Time for Three

Lilly and I went to see the Elgin Symphony Orchestra play Tchaikovsky recently — Symphony No. 5 in E minor, part of the program called “Time for Spring” — and they did a fine job of it. But the astonishingly good part of the concert was the half-hour or so Time for Three was on stage. The trio, two violins and a double bass, set up in front of the orchestra and went to town, accompanying the orchestra on Concerto 4-3 by Jennifer Higdon, who apparently wrote the piece about five years ago with Time for Three in mind.

The trio – Zach De Pue, violin; Nick Kendall, violin; and Ranaan Meyer, double bass – were more than just energetic, technically adept young men, though they were certainly that. They went well beyond good musicianship, exuding their joy in working together, which wasn’t lost on the audience, who applauded frequently and stood for the three at the end (until they came out for an encore).

More about Time for Three is at the PBS Newshour web site, and while this YouTube video doesn’t really do them sonic justice – I’m not sure anything but seeing them live could – it still shows their range, and how they approached working together, and how enthusiastic the audience was. And of course it was filmed in the same hall as we saw them. In fact, it’s from roughly the same vantage point, except we were to their left, rather than their right, on the second row (which are the cheap seats at the ESO, but acoustically just fine).

Christmas Tintinnabulation

Ann wanted to go to the library last night, and when we got there we chanced on a performance of the Random Ringers, a handbell ensemble. They were playing in a part of the Schaumburg Township Library sometimes given over to movies and small concerts, with about 50 people watching.

The ringers were more than half finished when we got there. Ann wasn’t especially charmed by the music, but I insisted on staying for a few songs, because I liked them—especially the large bells. The handy “Major American Handbells Sizes and Weights for Diatonic Pitches” says that the bells can weigh as little as 7 oz. or more than 18 lbs. I’m not sure the largest of the Random Ringers’ bells were at the large end of that scale, but they looked big enough to be weapons.

The Random Ringers include 12 performers and a conductor, Beth McFarland of Mundelein, Ill. “Random Ringers is a community-based choir and not affiliated with any religious environment, but most members ring in their own churches,” says the concert program (leaflet, really). “Members hail from the North and Northwest suburbs and practice in Arlington Heights each Monday night.”

We heard “Welcome Christmas,” “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” “He is Born” and “Silent Night.” A fine tintinnabulation, it was.

Branson Leftovers

Back again on Sunday, as the long Thanksgiving weekend peters out. We will be home for the occasion, since just the thought of going anywhere is tiring.

Branson is full of shows, but Joseph beat everything else I saw for sheer spectacle. Joseph is a South & Sight Theatres production, whose specialty is elaborate stagings of Bible stories, but “elaborate” hardly does it justice. The theater’s enormous, seating about 2,000, with a large stage that accommodates massive sets, large troupes of actors (including live animals, such as goats and camels), and impressive lighting and effects. The sets alone for Joseph—fittingly evoking ancient Egypt much of the time—would be worth seeing all by themselves, but fortunately not all of the effort went into sets and effects. The script tells the story of Joseph well, both in song and dialogue.

Christopher James, emcee on the Branson Belle showboat, told the trip’s best joke. I forget the exact wording, but it was a line about knowing better than to shine a bright light on stage, since too many of the audience would respond by getting up and heading toward it.

Indeed, at some of the shows I was a youngster compared to most of the audience. Such shows were heavily spiked with ’40s and especially ’50s nostalgia. But the showmen of Branson are preparing for the future. At one point, we had to wait for a few minutes outside a theater as the audience emerged from a John Denver tribute show. That is, a show spiked with ’70s nostalgia. The audience looked much younger than at most of the other shows—roughly my age.

No presidents were from Branson or are buried nearby, unless you count Harry Truman up in Independence, Mo. But I did see one presidential item: a bronze of the elder George Bush, as a young naval aviator, at the Veterans Memorial Museum.

We also visited the College of the Ozarks, which is a few miles from Branson. It’s a private Christian school whose students pay no tuition, but rather work for the school 15 hours a week. The fruits of all that work are many: among other things, we saw the greenhouses that grow orchids, a crafts building, the small hotel that the school runs, and the school’s restaurant, where we had Sunday brunch, done as a large buffet. The food was really good. Much of it is raised by students on the college’s farm.

Speaking of food, I had breakfast at a number of other places during my visit, and none of them—not even at the College of the Ozarks—offered grits. I was puzzled. I thought Branson would be south of the Grits Line, but maybe I’m wrong about that. Biscuits and gravy were widely served, but not grits. Odd.

Janice Martin, Aerial Violinist

A favorite fact about the showboat Branson Belle, which plies the waters of Table Rock Lake, Missouri: when the ship was launched in 1995, she slid into the water on a ramp greased with 4,000 pounds of bananas. The yellow fruit was a eco-friendly alternative to standard lubricants, and perhaps even cheaper, though I’m not up on the economics of boat launching.

Branson Belle is the property of Herschend Family Entertainment Corp., the company that also owns Silver Dollar City and a lot of other properties.– including Dollywood, but that’s part of another tourist-magnet area. The showboat’s a paddle-wheeler – two twin wheels, 24 feet in diameter each, and it’s a smooth ride, because while sitting in the theater I didn’t notice the ship getting underway. Later I wandered around taking pictures, making it as far as the topmost deck.

The 4 pm show included dinner plus entertainment: magician-comedian emcee Christopher James, who told the best jokes among the various shows I saw, a number of musicians, and “the world’s only aerial violinist,” Janice Martin. That alone was worth getting on the showboat for.

Janice Martin also happens to be a fine singer and pianist, which was part of the act, but I think everyone was waiting to see just what an aerial violinist would do. Climb up a couple of silk lines and do the kind of act you might see in a circus, to begin with. But strapped over one of her shoulders somehow was a special violin built for the purpose, which she played skillfully while dangling from the silks in one way or another. Flat-out amazing.

How did the remarkable combination come about? From the little she said, she’s been a musician always, including training at the Julliard. As for the aerialist skills, she said she first learned rope climbing during her stint in the U.S. Army as a musician. At what point did a light bulb go off? – hey, I can do both of these at the same time. Couldn’t say, but it did, and I hope the Branson Belle is making it well worth her while.

It Isn’t Christmas in Branson Until Andy Says It Is

The Andy Williams Moon River Theater in Branson is a theater, naturally, and a spacious and well-designed one, but it’s also an art gallery. I didn’t see everything, or even that many works, but included are paintings and sculptures by Willem de Kooning, Henry Moore, Kenneth Noland, Donald Roller Wilson, Jack Bush, Jacque Lipchitz, and Robert Motherwell. There’s also a collection of pre-modern (or maybe Meiji era) kimonos, which are in glass cases on the back wall of the theater. The nearby Moon River Grill also displays artwork, for that matter, with Andy Warhol works especially prominent.

The story I heard was that Andy Williams lived near Andy Warhol for a time in New York, and the singing Andy became friends with, and a patron of, Andy the artist. I hope that’s true, but in any case Andy collected Andy’s works.

We toured the theater, including some dressing rooms and the green room downstairs, and our guide told us that Andy William’s nickname, Mr. Christmas, wasn’t just about the Christmas specials he used to host. In Branson, the guide said, it wasn’t Christmas until Andy Williams said it was Christmas. For many years before his death, he said that Christmas began on November 1.

Marketing and his showman’s instincts must have been a factor in that date. But I suspect that he really wanted to see his theater, and the town, decked out for Christmas two months out of the year. And so it is. The town’s streets are adorned, lights are up everywhere, and the shows switch to Christmas iterations around the first of November. I’d prefer that Christmas not eat up early December, much less November, but Branson’s a whole other world, so I didn’t mind the early Christmas so much during my short stay, when the weather was warm and un-Christmas-like and Halloween had just ended.

Besides, when Branson decorates for Christmas, it pulls out all the stops. After dark in Silver Dollar City, for instance, you can see these kinds of lights.

It’d be churlish not to be impressed by all that, even in November.

Branson III

Since the previous BTST broke down, I’ve been a few places, worked a lot, voted in an election that a lot people believed important (and maybe I did, too), even watched “The Great Vegetable Rebellion” on a whim because I saw it was available on Hulu, and because it’s Irwin Allen at his best.

To kick off November, I took a trip to Branson. Not sure how the AP feels about Branson as a dateline, but I think it should stand alone: Branson, rather than Branson, Missouri, so famed has the place become. I’ve heard that I visited Branson when I was small, and when Branson was small, in the mid-60s, but remember nothing of that. En route elsewhere in 2001, we drove into town, ate lunch, and took away vague impressions. Mostly, I remember liking Yakov Smirnoff’s billboards lining the road between Springfield and Branson.

So this time might as well have been a first visit, even though it was my third. It was a busy press trip. Being Branson, that meant seeing more musical-variety-comedy shows than I might see in many ordinary years. In fact, I realized in the middle of my stay that when the variety show died out from television, it was reborn in Branson. The shows I saw included singing, dancing, visual gags, bad jokes, good jokes, sometimes lavish sets and costumes, adaptations of classic theater and movies and the Bible, and even an aerialist – who played violin during her aerial act, which I’ve never seen anyone else do, not even in a circus. We also met a handful of entertainers in person, namely a couple of Lennon Sisters, as well as a fellow whose act is a Neil Diamond tribute.

I noticed some relics, too. Saints’ relics aren’t what they used to be, since we tend to prefer celebrity relics in our time. At the Andy Williams’ Moon River Grill, the late entertainers’ gold records are on walls. That includes, of course, the LP Moon River (pictured), but also the Love Theme from The Godfather, among many others. That’s a movie I hadn’t realized had a love theme, much less one sung by Andy Williams. Its actual title, I’ve discovered, is “Speak Softly Love (or You’ll Sleep With the Fishes).” (Parenthesis added by me.)

Branson wasn’t all live entertainment. During my three full days there, I also managed to ride a train made of vintage railroad cars a short way into Arkansas, wander around the Silver Dollar City theme park, take the tour of Marvel Cave, and visit the surprisingly interesting College of the Ozarks – but not, unfortunately, see the Beverly Hillbillies’ truck, which is there. Branson also sports some museums, and I went to three of them – one about a maritime disaster, another about war, and a third, smaller one about Branson and environs.

On foot one day, I checked out the newly developed downtown riverfront and its attendant open-air retail space, and not far away examined a store that called itself a Five and Dime and had an usually large assortment of merchandise, over and above Branson-oriented gimcracks and gewgaws. Those can be found everywhere in great profusion.