Review: THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD by Gilbert & Sullivan Austin
by David Glen Robinson


Savoyards rejoice! The 2024 grand production The Yeomen of the Guard by Gilbert & Sullivan Austin (GSA) has opened at the Worley Barton Theater on the grounds of the Brentwood Christian School in north Austin.


For the uninitiated: a "Savoyard" is a fan of the works of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, fourteen comic operas staged at the Savoy Theatre during Queen Victoria's time and still very much in evidence on stages today.


The Yeomen of the Guard is a treasure. The musical play premiered in 1888 at the Savoy Theatre in London and ran for 423 performances. It was the eleventh of fourteen collaborations between Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert.


Yeomen corps with Evan Abeling and Sam Johnson at cente (GSA phot)


GSA invested great effort in this material for its 2024 grand summer production. The company prides itself on employing talent exclusively from the Austin area, and this cast included both very bright talents with recent experience from elsewhere and company stalwarts, some of whom first trod GSA boards as long ago as the 90's. Their results were shining and fresh, à la mode for the large Austin musical theatre community. There is much credit to be awarded, unfortunately too much credit for a review of restricted length. The technical contributors, artist biographies, and background of the production may be perused here.


GSA consistently has the best printed programs for its productions of any dance, theatre, or music company in Austin or the region, bar none.


Much of the responsibility for the results lies with the top-rank production team, headed musically by Dr. Jeffrey Jones-Ragona. In addition to his greatly accomplished direction and conducting, Jones-Ragona is a vocalist with several choral groups in the region and often a member of opera choruses in Austin and San Antonio. Stage director Liz Fisher is relatively new to GSA and musical theatre. Her list of national credits in theatre leaves no doubt of her ability to adapt to the change. Among other honors, Fisher is a recipient of the Princess Grace Award in Theatre, the SDC National Directing Award (Kennedy Center), and a Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Fellowship.


The cast of impressive singing talents performed in a story and musical text that must be recognized as resembling a rather conventional European opera, which typically features much myth and many medieval fairy tales. Sir Arthur—knighted by this time by Queen Victoria for his services to music—aspired to compose grand opera. Thus, in The Yeomen of the Guard we have hidden or otherwise obscured identities, hysterical (in the bad sense) and codependent romantic relationships, and unexpressed or thwarted love, all of them familiar structures of high opera.


Kristin Bilodeau, Hillary Schranze, Annisha Mackenzie (GSA photos)


The principal singers launched boldly into these tropes, all well guided by director Fisher. Evan Abeling as Colonel Fairfax was the well qualified romantic lead, the target of much jealousy and the exemplar of hidden identity. Kristin Bilodeau as Elsie Maynard, initially a dupe of plotters but ultimately triumphant, was one of three particularly powerful sopranos, the others being Annisha Mackenzie as Phoebe Meryll and Hillary Schranze as Dame Carruthers, all of them fully up to opera standard. They were capable of singing laughingly or through tears. Mackenzie even clearly projected Phoebe's agony while lying face down on the stage. Each of these female voices has the capability of hitting the back seats with clarity as well as power.


GSA stalwart bass Sam Johnson, a towering yeoman in his own right, played Sergeant Meryll, who, in seeking justice, put himself in the position of violating serious laws after a lifetime of service to the king. Johnson played the same role with the company in 1997!


Julius Young (GSA phot)Ginger-haired Julius Young, often seen with GSA and a member of Austin Opera choruses, was Wilfred Shadbolt, the Tower jailer and assistant tormentor. Shadbolt is indeed one thoroughly unmarriageable commoner, but his personal transformation was as great as that of any of the characters, save one. Young possesses a well-articulated operatic voice and immense stage presence.


The Tower of London's resident flock of ravens have lived there from time out of mind. The legend, perhaps a Victorian-era invention, is that If they ever abandon their Tower home, England will be destroyed. Sarah Manna appeared as the enigmatic Citizen Raven, something of a meta-character, the onstage animator of two sets of raven puppets. Her vocal work was with the chorus.  Manna and her puppet ravens were a leitmotif of the operetta, a truly exquisite touch. Puppet design credit goes to Melissa McKnight of the Vortex, in Austin. 

Sara Manna (GSA photo)


Manna’s costume in her puppeteer appearances was an out-of-period gown that suggested she was an abstraction. In her styling, she wore monstrously long eyelashes. No doubt she removed them between performances, fed and watered them, and kept them apart to keep them from fighting.


Twelve singer/performers composed the chorus, amplified by the six yeomen warding the Tower. To this reviewer’s ears, the standout voices were those of Susan Johnston Taylor, Patricia Combs, and Leann Fryer. All the chorus members did the yeoman work of filling the stage and changing the scale of the performance. Kudos to them all.


Kristin Bilodeau, Leann Frye, Kyree Harrison, Sam Johnson (GSA photo)GSA marketing material pointed out that The Yeomen of the Guard was slightly darker in tone than other of Gilbert and Sullivan works and a tragedy casts a shadow on what would otherwise be a completely happy ending. Gilbert and Sullivan productions often end with multiple marriage ceremonies (The Yeomen of the Guard has three) surrounded by a chorus holding flower bouquets. In this work, librettist and composer broke their own mold right out of the starting gate with a premise of multiple impending beheadings at the frightful Tower of London. Not to say that suggested murders, prisons, and executions weren’t used by them to heighten drama in other productions. But the plot convolutions of Yeomen before we arrive at the three marriages are positively Escherian.


Fisher’s director’s notes in the program are titled Embracing Opposites. She notes that the work has been called a “tragic comic opera,” one combining death and slapstick. Fisher comments, "The music, the character, and even its setting hold opposing forces inside of themselves.” She cites dualistic juxtapositions in several examples of character and setting: the Tower holds the crown jewels of the realm but also is place of unjust torture and executions; the ravens are guardians of England, but in myth and legend they are omens of death, madness, or doom; the character of Jack Point is a jester or itinerant comic, but he sings despairingly; Sergeant Meryll lives a life of upright duty and honor but subverts oppressive authority. Fisher calls us to embrace these contradictions, for in them “transformation and new opportunity emerge.” Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. But can Hegelian synthesis really be found in The Yeomen of the Guard? Certainly, the six characters married in the operetta find transformation in marriage with its ongoing dualisms, but others are set adrift.


Trey Deason (GSA photo)The character of Jack Point, played and ably sung by Trey Deason, is one such unmoored figure, and he does much of the heavy lifting at the tragic pole of the story. A late jester figure or early stand-up comic figure, Point shows up at the Tower Green with his traveling companion Elsie Maynard, and together they sing “I have a song to sing, O.” The song touts their professional skills and other joys. Later, Point sings “Oh! A private buffoon is a light-hearted loon,” a song heavily colored with irony that details how the existence of a comic may not always be joyous.


Point's course through the operetta is ultimately tragic, but Elsie’s is not. She is the marriage bait that ultimately preserves justice in England and entertains all Savoyards, affirming their middle-class values. Point is emphatically cast aside and left singing increasingly depressed laments. In today’s parlance, he would agree that he's a pathetic loser.


A final small cycle must be turned in the character of Jack Point, and it is metatheatrical. He is self-described in his songs as educated in entertainment—knows all the jokes, all the songs— and he dances and acts long on stage. In modern parlance, he's a theatre person. And so were Gilbert, Sullivan, and all the Savoy actors; so are today’s Gilbert and Sullivan Austin, all its singers and actors, technicians, and front of house volunteers. Everything about Jack Point is self-reflexive, and he is completely confessional. He can be read as a cri du cœur from Gilbert and Sullivan late in their collaboration. Jack points inside.


In such a large-cast production, a few miscastings are to be expected but may easily be dismissed as growing pains for the company. The miscastings become evident, however, when those who project hardly at all are juxtaposed with those who project brilliantly.


The only real critical comment on the story and its production from this reviewer may seem trivial, but it emphasizes the operetta’s serious themes. In my view, in the last scene, Elsie Maynard and her groom should not have looked back upon the petal-strewn wreckage they created. They should simply have exited and left the ravens to fly through, as indeed happened, the perfect final touch.


Promo Video by Jose Lozano, Magic Spoon Productions


The Yeomen of the Guard
by W.S. Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan
Gilbert & Sullivan Austin

June 07 - June 16, 2024
Brentwood Christian School
11908 N Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX, 78753

June 7, 13, 14, 15, 2024 at 7:30 p.m.

matinees June 8, 9, 15, 16

Gilbert & Sullivan Austin

Worley Barton Theatre, Brentwood Christian School

Tickets $12 - 37, available HERE

Price at the Door: $42 Adults | $27 Students over 18 with ID | $15 for 18 & under
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