The company has a good chorus, of all ages. Their acting and facial expressions were fun to watch, and when they were given interesting stuff to do, they did it well. At the beginning of the show, however, they had to spend a lot of time standing still, in straight lines. A short waltz sequence was pretty, but then it was back to the lines. The chorus would have seemed more natural and unobtrusive if they’d been allowed to relate to one another, characterize themselves a little more, and perhaps sit down on the steps of Dave Kay’s good-looking set. And to my relief, this was what happened. As the act went on, the choristers got more involved in the action, showed individuality (though not to the point of upstaging the principals) and generally became interesting. They really got into the violent sequence after “Ten minutes since”, jostling Ludwig and in one case hitting him with a cane. In the finale and second act they were even better. I was especially charmed by the gestures and laughter of three young female choristers, dressed in yellow, purple and blue, who got drunk on the Baroness’s champagne.
The leads were a mixed bunch. All the acting was good, and some was excellent. Most of the characters are written as two-dimensional, but when presented well, they can be a very engaging two dimensions. The singing was also up to a high standard. The female soloists had pretty voices, and Stephanie Mann was particularly fine as Lisa. The difficulty was that a lot of the lead actors were hard to hear, a lot of the time. It wasn’t for want of amplification; the theatre was miked. It was simply that they weren’t enunciating clearly. Sometimes they’d also been blocked with their backs to the audience, making the problem worse. And in a show like GRAND DUKE, where plot points fly thick and fast, this meant that a good bit of the story was hard to take in for people who didn’t know the show. The pacing also got better as the show went on; cues were slow at the beginning, but they’d sharpened up by the scene between Rudolph and the Baroness.
Michael Belle, as Ernest, was the first character to really take my interest. He had a likable persona, good facial expressions, and a fine strong voice. (Also, I could hear everything he said or sang.) We really felt for poor Ernest as he pursued Julia Jellicoe (Kathy Lague), a hard-edged prima donna. Ms. Lague, by the way, sang a lovely “So ends my dream”, in which she was so sympathetic that I had a certain feeling of “Wait a minute, I’m liking Julia! This must not be!”
Tony Parkes as Grand Duke Rudolph was wonderful. I confess I was expecting the character of Rudolph to be Scrooge-like and completely nasty. Mr. Parkes played him as a very haughty person who at the same time was insecure and childish enough to be likable (floofy wig and all). It was a nice touch when he drooped and looked unwell, in a pointed way, so that the Baroness (Tambre Tarleton Knox) would fuss over him. Mr. Parkes’s diction was also great. He and Ms. Knox did a cute love-scene, duet and dance, and the two of them made such a fun couple that I was sorry to see them matched up with different people at the end of the show.
The Act 1 finale, with the Statutory Duel, was excellent all around: good staging, good soloists, lots of fun with the chorus, good pace, and nice clear diction. Ed Fell was jolly yet sinister as the Notary, and a fine touch was to have the duelists take off their coats and ceremoniously smack each other in the face, before announcing “He has insulted me…” After the duel, there was a lovely little scene where several of the actresses place lilies in Rudolph’s hands, plunk a funereal wreath over his head, kiss him and pretend to mourn. The poor Grand Duke takes it seriously till they all burst out laughing.
The Princess of Monte Carlo was played by Elaine Crane, an avid G&S performer whose career I’ve followed with interest. She was charming, as always, and so appealing that I wished we could have seen more of her character. That’s the opera’s trouble — it introduces you to fun people who then disappear for most of an act, or only get fifteen minutes of stage time. When Rudolph, Ernest, and the Notary reappeared at the end, they had a great menacing moment where they all stalked across the stage to threaten Ludwig.
The costuming was excellent. The Supernumeraries and the Prince and Princess of Monte Carlo all looked glorious. Ludwig and Rudolph and the rest of the men appeared perfectly natural and comfortable wearing knee-breeches, stockings and buckled shoes, and everybody seemed at home in their clothes. I liked the Agamemnon costume for Ludwig in Act 2: glitter wig, breastplate, leather kilt, no pants, gilded Birkenstocks, and gold shin pieces (I quite forget their name). The can-can was danced by women still dressed in Greek costumes — an odd but fun combination.