by Gail M. Burns, October, 2006
A lot of attention has been paid recently to the blossoming professional theatre scene in Berkshire County and its environs. We are indeed blessed with a great deal of excellent theatre, but we mustn’t become so star struck that we ignore the existence of and the necessity for community theatre.
The Town Players of Pittsfield is celebrating their 86th anniversary season. That’s seven years older than the Berkshire Theatre Festival, which will start its 79th season in 2007. Founded in 1921, Town Players is one of the oldest community theatre groups in the country. In other words, they were here first folks, and there is no doubt that the presence of a thriving community theatre was a major factor in attracting the professional theatres to this region.
Town Players has launched this season with a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial By Jury at the Lichtenstein Center in downtown Pittsfield. I have to say I was surprised by their choice of venue and was hard put to imagine staging a G&S operetta in such a small space, even the brief one-act Trial By Jury. I had visions of a hoop-skirted chorus of Victorian bridesmaids sitting on the laps of the patrons in the first row! But if their only alternative was the cavernous Boland Theatre at BCC, I could see where the Lichtenstein would have been a better choice. And the more theatre we get in downtown Pittsfield, the better.
Director Robert Boland, the Berkshire theatre legend for whom the BCC facility is named, has pared the cast down to thirteen, which is still quite a horde to squeeze on to the miniscule stage at the Lichtenstein, which is squeezed into a corner and shaped like a hearty slice of pie. Thankfully the court room setting means that each cast member stays more or less stationary in his or her appointed spot, which Boland has placed along the two walls, leaving a small bit of open floor space in the center where a modicum of cavorting can take place.
Trial By Jury was the second collaboration of William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Seymour Sullivan, falling between the lost Thespis and the seldom-performed The Sorcerer in the G&S canon. It opened in London as part of a triple bill of brief comic operettas in 1875 and was popular enough to run for about 300 performances in its first year. It is the only one of the thirteen extant Savoy operas to be written in one act and to contain no spoken dialogue. Gilbert, who worked for a while as a lawyer before turning his attentions full-time to his writing, took great glee in poking fun at the British judicial system in this little satirical gem concerning a case of breach of promise of marriage.
The plot is simplicity itself. Edwin has jilted Angelina and she is suing him. The entire action takes place in the Court of the Exchequer. The jury, which in those days would not have contained any women, forms the male chorus, and Angelina’s bevy of bridesmaids (she appears in court in full bridal regalia) forms the female chorus, a foreshadowing of the hilarious and relentless chorus of professional bridesmaids who wait on Rose Maybud in Ruddigore.
In Boland’s version, in addition to the Defendant, Edwin, (Jeffrey Hine), the Plaintiff, Angelina, (Sarah Novak), the Judge (Sam Slack), the Usher (Michael Woolf), and counsel for the defense (Wavelyn Hine), there are four female spectators, not bridesmaids, (Susan Coles, Jessica Guzzo, Cathy Hunt, and Aloha Winchester) and four male jurors (Sam Craig, David O’Connor, Matthew Passetto, and John Slocum).
Both Jeffery Hine and Novak are obviously middle-aged, in such close quarters there is no fooling the audience with make-up and lighting, making Edwin and Angelina’s adolescent longings and fickleness all the more hilarious. Both tackle their roles with verve and sing their solo arias very nicely.
Slack, who has tackled G&S character roles for Town Players before, is a delightful Judge, seeming to step directly out of one of Gilbert’s Bab Ballad illustrations. Wavelyn Hine does nicely with the traditionally male role of the Defense Counsel, and Woolf plays a fussy little usher, forever flapping his robed arms and bleating “Silence in the court!”
Trial by Jury lasts about 40 minutes, followed by an intermission, and an unpretentious little cabaret of songs about love in all it permutations. For the second half Slocum and Coles retire and Pat Davis and Anne-Marie Desautels join the cast. All the songs presented are solos or duets, so any stage crowding problem is eliminated until the final curtain call, and each number is staged simply.
While these are gifted amateur rather than professional singers, everyone delivers his or her solo competently and with feeling. Being willing to stand up on stage and belt out a song is one of the chief requirements for doing it successfully, and everyone involved here seems not only willing but able and enthusiastic. The young Passetto and Guzzo are vocal stand-outs, while the older O’Connor, Desautels, and Winchester all bring a centered sense of maturity to their numbers.
The Hines team up for a rib-tickling rendition of Never Say No from The Fantasticks by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, the gentlemen happily harmonize on Standing on the Corner by Frank Loesser from The Most Happy Fella, and Davis and Novak take their digs at the male of the species in Where In the World is My Prince? from Jerry Herman’s unproduced Miss Spectacular, and Without You from My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
Is this a perfect evening of professional performers in glorious costumes on big sets under zillions of watts of carefully focused lights? No. Is it a fun evening of community theatre and a chance to hear a delightful but infrequently staged Savoy opera? Heck, yes! Gilbert & Sullivan fans will be pleased with Boland’s vigorous staging and Ellen Shanahan’s strong musical direction and accompaniment. And at $8 per ticket this is a perfect family outing – a great way to introduce even young school-age children who might not make it through one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s full-length operettas to the work of this inimitable team.
Trial By Jury and the Loves Lost Cabaret presented by the Town Players of Pittsfield runs October 20, 21, 27, 28 at 8 p.m., and on Sunday October 22 at 2 p.m. at the Lichtenstein Center, 28 Renne Street, Pittsfield. The two pieces together, including intermission, run about 90 minutes and are suitable for the whole family. Call 413-443-9279 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006