B. and I went to Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience yesterday from the Lamplighters, probably still the best G&S troupe anywhere. The singing was excellent, particularly strong from deep-voiced Cary Ann Rosko as Lady Angela and newcomer Jacob Botha as Grosvenor.
But what was better still was the sumptuously impressive sets (scenic design, Peter Crompton) and the brilliant costumes (design, Melissa Wortman; construction, Miriam Lewis). That was critical, and here's why.
Patience is one of the finest of the G&S operettas - though Sullivan had composed great songs before, this is the first full show where he was consistently on top form from start to finish. But it has a problem, which is that the satire of the aesthetic movement more quickly dated than anything else Gilbert wrote for the Savoy. Even as early as the first revival twenty years later, reviewers were incredulous in recalling that characters resembling Bunthorne had once actually existed. Remember that the trial and fall of Oscar Wilde (who was modeled on Bunthorne rather than the other way around) had occurred in the interim, and the world had changed.
Accordingly, some modern productions update the costuming. The Sixties, which provided later days with their most striking contrast between their aesthetic fad and their conventional style, is a favorite. But Lamplighters artistic director Rick Williams, in an essay in the program, said that these haven't caught on. He thinks we should stick to the original setting because Gilbert's satirical point is universal.
Well, it is. Certainly artistic fashions always lend themselves to popular frenzies and to being exploited by poseurs, a more universal point than, say, Pinafore's now quaintly obsolete class rigidity. But for that reason it seems to me that it's more, not less, appropriate to re-set Patience in the days of some more contemporary artistic fashion. If it's universal, it should be applicable to any time.
The big question is, what do you do about the clothes for the ending, where the hero and the maidens abandon aestheticism and become conventional? There is no contrast available in Victorian days that would equal the impact of a Sixties production I once saw, in which what had been hippie chicks for the entire show were transformed into Jackie Kennedy clones, pillbox hats and all. Suddenly I understood the story in a way I never had before.
But this show did pretty well. The gowns that the maidens wore for the bulk of the show were so vividly pre-Raphaelite that they outdid any actual pre-Raphaelite paintings I could find online. Then for the final scene the maidens came out in what I think can best be described as 1910s middle-class summer hoop dresses, with these stiff medium-brim hats with a sprig of lace hanging off the back. I've seen these hats in period drawings before, but nothing I Google can produce a picture of one. (Nothing appropriate on the Lamplighters site either, for either set of costumes.)
Anyway, I think this production did as good a job as possible with this problem, given that restriction. But I think it odd that a company that entirely re-set their most recent Mikado, and stating while doing so that this was permissible because Gilbert's point was universal (it's "not actually about Japan"), should be so rigidly insistent on preserving his original setting for Patience, when, in the words of the same artistic director, Patience "focuses on the ubiquitous phenomenon of fads, cults and crazes in style, taste and lifestyle in general."