‘Fun’ is the word on Durham Savoyards

jwise@newsobserver.comDecember 2, 2013 

  • Try, see, hear

    Auditions for the “The Sorcerer” are Sunday, 2-5 p.m., and Monday, 6:30-9:30 p.m., with callbacks on Tuesday, at the Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris St. To schedule an audition, email auditions@durhamsavoyards.org. For information, see durhamsavoyards.org. Volunteers are also needed for offstage jobs: see bit.ly/HP2Y63. Performances of “The Sorcerer” are March 27-30, 2014, at the Carolina Theatre. Savoyards members are available to sing concerts of their music. To book the singers, see bit.ly/17pkrx3.

  • The pair’s history

    W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan were a British words-and-music team who wrote comic operas poking fun at the Victorian-era culture in which they lived.

    “H.M.S. Pinafore” (1878), “The Pirates of Penzance” (1879) and “The Mikado” (1885) are the pair’s best-known and most-revived works, but between 1871 and 1896 they created numerous musicals all characterized by turning conventions – particularly class distinctions – upside-down and in and out. (However, it’s probably not true that Queen Victoria’s response to one of their shows was, “We are not amused.”)

    In “The Sorcerer,” for example, an idealistic aristocrat wants to share the sort of love he has for his betrothed, so he convinces a magician to concoct an elixir of love that, once applied, has gentry falling for the serving classes, old for young – and some people for others they can’t help loving, even though they detest everything about them.

    “It’s just so much fun, and good, solid musical theater,” said Alan Riley Jones, music director for the Durham Savoyards’ “The Sorcerer” and once played the title role.

    The Durham company got its start at a “Twelfth Night” party in January 1963 and staged its first production (“Pirates”) later that year. Since then, it has produced at least one Gilbert and Sullivan show each year ever since. They took the “Savoyards” name from the Savoy Theatre in London, which producer Richard D’Oyly Carte built in 1881 expressly for staging Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas.

    Staff writer Jim Wise

Alan Riley Jones first met Gilbert and Sullivan via a 1950s TV variety show. Now he’s getting ready to direct them for the 12th time.

“It’s just so much fun,” he said. “It’s good, solid musical theater; it’s semiclassical. … It seems always fresh.”

Each year since 2003, Jones has been music director for the Durham Savoyards’ annual production of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, in tandem with stage director Derrick Ivey.

“It’s fun. I enjoy it,” said Ivey, who has set a Savoyards “Mikado” in an American art museum and a “Princess Ida” in outer space. The 2014 show, “The Sorcerer,” is sticking to Gilbert & Sullivan’s own Victorian era – “Downton Abbey, that’s pretty much it,” Ivey said – but still it has its challenge. “There’s magic involved,” he said.

Fittingly enough, for one of the light, fantastic British musicals that satirizes convention and, one way or another, turns the social order topsy-turvy.

“Sorcerer” auditions are Sunday and Monday, Dec. 8-9, and rehearsals start soon after New Year’s; the opening is March 27.

“It’s very hectic,” said Steve Dobbins, a Savoyard since 2002. “It’s a great group of people who appreciate the fun of the show, but also (do) the work that it takes to do a good job.”

It’s been going on for more than 50 years, ever since the idea of staging a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta came up at a party in January 1963 and led, a few months later, to a full-dress “Mikado” in the Durham High School (now Durham School of the Arts) auditorium.

“There’s the art of it,” said Pat Roos, a Savoyard since 2001. “But there’s also the company. A lot of our friends are in this. I’d say over half the company has been on the board at some point. … People help with sets – spend hours and hours getting things done. It’s a really important social mix.”

The Savoyards have taken their shows to Wilmington’s 1858 Thalian Hall, turned “Ruddigore: or, the Witch’s Curse” into a Halloween cabaret, and, upon request, sent an ensemble to sing Gilbert and Sullivan selections for private audiences.

“If we can find a piano player and a conductor, we’re there,” said Gilbert and Sullivan Singers coordinator Noelle Paull.

“The Sorcerer” is not a Gilbert and Sullivan chestnut like “Mikado,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “H.M.S. Pinafore,” but it’s a point of Savoyard pride to have produced numerous of the duo’s musicals and to bring back the less-familiar shows from time to time.

Jones, the music director, once played the title role.

“He’s as much of a villain as there is in this,” he said. “He’s kind of a shady character.”

The plot involves a village aristocrat who thinks everyone should enjoy true romantic love, even across the bounds of social class. To that end, he engages a London sorcerer to whip up a love potion to slip into the tea at an engagement party The result? All sorts of utterly unsuitable people – even some who downright despise each other – fall in love.

With certain exceptions, of course. “It doesn’t work on married folks,” Jones said. “It only works on single folks. It’s very respectable.”

Savoyards are supportive of each other – just for the sake of being friendly, said Cathy Lambe, whose first Savoyards show was “Utopia, Limited” in 1981.

“Everybody wants you to do OK. They’re not picking and backbiting and stuff like that,” Lambe said. The leads may get the spotlight, but the directors always give the chorus a chance to shine, she added.

“We get to dance, we get to do funny things … and that’s the lovely thing,” she said.

“Sorcerer” producer Janell Lovelace said her husband persuaded her to get involved after he played in a Savoyards orchestra.

“He said it was the most fun he’d had in music in ages,” she said.

Dobbins, a past Savoyard president, said he got into the group as a fill-in for a chorus singer who dropped out nine days before “H.M.S. Pinafore” opened in 2002.

“I liked it, so I stuck around. And I’m glad I did,” he said. “It’s a great deal of fun.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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