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.”