We think of Gilbert and Sullivan nowadays as the province of Prairie Home Companion fans, elderly republicans, and The Simpson's Sideshow Bob. We might forget that the hit duo occasionally drew ire from the establishment of their day. Dale Gutzman has never forgotten this. Always a bit of a cultural anarchist, this veteran director has brought a rebel's sensibility, along with his encyclopedic musical knowledge, to Here's a Howdy Do, his second (at least) G&S review at the Skylight. The first one was the very model of classy, fun entertainment; this show is a bit edgier. In fact, it's rather tainted by an inexplicably cynical tone that leaves one with a bad taste: the cucumber sandwiches are laced with wormwood.
Author/director Gutzman's conceit is to have the four highly-professional actor-singers portray parodies of themselves, behaving highly unprofessionally. (A similar concept was disastrous in the Rep's recent Compleat Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged) The hapless players lose the score for their opening medley, flaunt their petty jealousies, drink "gin" onstage, and seemingly disregard the conventional goal of music theater: to entertain the audience more than themselves. Early on, Gutzman musically informs us that this is meant to teach us—but it's never all that clear what our lesson is supposed to be, apart from a generalized misanthropy.
Clever bits abound: they pull their medley from random pages of sheet music scattered on the floor; they find another number on the internet via their iPhones. The show is chockful of unexpected juxtapositions, genuine wit, and moments of loveliness—usually with a barb attached: soldiers singing about how they "love to fight" and "aren't very bright" raise hackles in our military-adoring age as much as they did in Victoria's time. A twelve-minute condensation of The Mikado features a hilariously un-P.C. Japanese puppet chorus that looks (and sounds!) like the gnarly brats of South Park. Songs flip into unexpected yet devilishly appropriate parodies of other musicals, including Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, and Oklahoma. And there are treats for the connoisseur, such as a never-performed poem written by Gilbert alone, with all of its comedy of manners intact.
Some gags, like the mock rivalry between the two women players, outwear their welcome; others are too in-jokey. By the time the cast sings about their plight as local performers supporting their art with day jobs, while striking the classic Les Miz pose with a Union Jack, they're in grave peril of losing our sympathy entirely. The wonderfully clever "G&S formula" number, performed with music from Pirates of Penzance and Gutzman's ingenious parody lyrics, is marred by an air that borders on contempt. All this would work much better if the players were allowed to display more of their evident sweetness and the love of music that we know they have. Don Rickles could get away with outrageous insults because he somehow let the audience in on the fun; these actors seem to have been directed more towards self-regard.
Of the four performers, the gents have an easier time of it than the ladies: Paul Helm displays prime comedic and musical chops as the cherubically clueless pianist, while Ray Jivoff has a great time with the anarchic atmosphere, mugging away in a variety of outlandish outfits. Niffer Clarke seems least comfortable with the show's premise, but delivers several lovely solos movingly; while Diane Lane plugs away gamely at her unlikable persona, delivering notwithstanding some amusingly prissy lectures.
Not everyone could come up with a fresh takes on Gilbert and Sullivan, and there's a lot to enjoy and respect in this show. Now, if some of the loosy-goosier moments were just tightened up, and the performers encouraged to show a little more heart, one could recommend Here's a Howdy Do unreservedly to anyone—not just irony-laden hipsters.
Here's a Howdy Do:The Mischievous World of Gilbert and Sullivan
Written and directed by Dale Gutzman
December 31 – January 13
Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center
158 N. Broadway
7:30, with 2:00 matinees
Complete showtimes and dates
Tickets generally $35.50 (plus tax) can be purchased in person at the Broadway Theatre Center Box Office or by calling (414) 291-7800 Monday through Sunday from noon – 6:00 p.m.
Group, student, senior and other discounts are available.