Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2002

Oh dear, oh dear! How to delicately put this…? Mr. Richard Smithies, co-owner and director of the Greenwoods Theatre at Norfolk, has seen fit to star himself in the current production of A Private Buffoon, a one-man musical focusing on the professional life of Sir W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911), the dramatist and lyricist half of Gilbert and Sullivan. This would be an okay idea, if Mr. Smithies could sing or if he knew what size clothes he wore. The fact that he can select neither a pair of trousers or a theatrical role that fit him, seems to bode very ill for the future of the Greenwoods Theatre under his direction. This is a great pity because he and co-owner Maura Cavanaugh have done a great job restoring this jewel of a Victorian opera house, and A Private Buffoon would seem to be the kind of intimate show well suited to the theatre’s small stage and historical period.

But almost more troubling to me than the fact that an actor/director/theatre owner would insinuate himself into an inappropriate vehicle (it has happened before and it will happen again), is the fact that this is the third recently written play I have seen which seems to have succeeded in major theatrical centers as well as smaller regional theatres, without being even passably well-written. I have no objection to popular theatre, lord knows I don’t want to sit through Hamlet every night myself, but if the populace is being sold inferior goods and told that it is great theatre, then we are doing everyone a great disservice.

These three plays — Dirty BlondeA Private Buffoon, and My Way: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra — all claim the biography of a 20th century celebrity as their basis, but I learned more from half an hour’s research on the Internet than I did at any of the performances. Being a biography-reading kinda gal, I found that I already knew as much about Mae West and W.S. Gilbert as the playwrights presented.

A Private Buffoon did offer up some obscure songs for which Gilbert had written the lyrics, but they were so badly sung by Smithies that I could not form any real opinion of them. All they made me wonder was why, since they were not composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan, he was the only composer given credit in the program. I had already questioned the sense of writing a “musical” in which all the music is performed by the lyricist.

Playwright John Wolfson has chosen to focus A Private Buffoon solely on Gilbert’s professional life and largely on the time spent in collaboration with Sullivan. I would have liked to have heard more about the writing of the Bab Ballads and some talk of his childhood and home life. It was the custom for actors, playwrights, or producers to direct shows in those days, and Gilbert directed the Savoy operas in a tyrannical manner, having control over everything from casting to costuming. Gilbert loved the “new media” of his day. He was an early investor in the telephone and made reference to the gadget in the lyrics for H.M.S. Pinafore. The Savoy was the first theatre in London to use electrical lighting beginning with the opening of Iolanthe in 1882. Surely these are stories worth telling, stories that enhance the tale of Gilbert’s collaboration with Sullivan, rather than detracting from it.

The set, for which credit is given to Wide Open Spaces, is quite charming and serviceable, but ever so slightly unfinished. I wanted to go get a paintbrush and touch up the odd spot during intermission so that it would look really spiffy instead of slightly shabby. And the less said about Smithies’ unfortunate costumes, credited to Glad Rags, the better. They didn’t fit him and they didn’t fit the period.

It is clear that not enough impartial eyes looked over this show before it opened to the public. It is all very well to own your own theatre and to take part in the shows that are mounted there, but you need to at least look in a mirror, if not consult with other folks, before you pull back the curtain. I would like to see Greenwoods Theatre succeed, and I hope that the rest of their 4th season is more professionally presented and appealing than this opening show.

A Private Buffoon runs through July 7 at the the Greenwoods Theatre at Norfolk on Rt. 44 in Norfolk. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Please call the box office at 860-542-0026 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002

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