Saturday, September 3, 2005

Victorian Lyric Opera

The Victorian Lyric Opera Company's Thursday program, in Rockville's F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, was titled "G & S by Request." The title was accurate, but something like "Just the Good Parts" might have been equally precise.

What the company did was poll its audience on which Gilbert and Sullivan numbers it most wanted to see and build a program around the response. No time for the whole "Pirates of Penzance," but a spot for Michael Galizia's gruff-voiced celebration of the life of a pirate king and Denise Young's sweet-voiced "Poor Wandering One." From the vast G&S repertoire, 29 solo and ensemble numbers were selected and a crew of 33 performers sang and danced their way through the material, with piano assistance by Jennifer Craley Bland and Deborah Jacobson.

A lot of dialogue was left out and some context was missed; the jokes about "Basingstoke" as a tranquilizer were meaningless to those who don't know "Ruddigore," but presumably this audience knew "Ruddigore."

Highlights were almost too numerous to mention. One was "Three Little Maids" sung by men in Japanese drag; another was a series of patter songs climaxed by Gary Sullivan's "Modern Major General," and others were sequences of madrigals and love songs and ballads. The voices were amateur but highly dedicated and well-rehearsed, and the singing tended to improve notably as time passed and voices warmed up. In community theater, one does not look for world-class voices or professional polish; what matters most is the performers' relation to the audience. On this, the Victorian Lyric Opera did well.

There will be repeat performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon.

-- Joseph McLellan

Brave Combo

Go see a Brave Combo show and you hear almost anything -- from an accordion-driven version of the "Jeopardy" TV theme to a manic, whistle-led "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" to exquisitely rendered polkas, schottisches and waltzes. The Denton, Tex., band's gigs, such as the one at Iota Thursday night, are unhinged exercises in -- to borrow the title of their 1987 platter -- polkatharsis.

Heading into its 26th year under the direction of Carl Finch, Brave Combo won a second Grammy (best polka album) last year but remains as unclassifiable as ever, performing sporadically and recording whimsically (a musical tribute to holidays is due next month). Thursday, Finch burned with wild energy, pounding his guitar and piano and generally working himself into a frenzy. With the crucial support of longtime reedman Jeffrey Barnes, every imaginable musical style flew from the stage.

Not only did the band masterfully render "Cha Cha for Two," "Sixteen Tons," the Searchers' "Bumble Bee" and Finch's "Ice Machine in the Desert," it also suggested -- and occasionally quoted from -- Mike Oldfield, Manuel Galban, Pee Wee King, the Sex Pistols and Rimsky-Korsakov in the process. And its Temptations-flavored version of "The Hokey Pokey" remains timeless.

At 90 minutes, the set was short by Brave Combo standards, meaning it never got to its "Simpsons" theme song polka. But between the insane classic-rock quotes in "No No No, Cha Cha Cha" and the hard-core polka of Gene Wisniewski's "Down at the Friendly Tavern," there was plenty of time for sweet release.

-- Patrick Foster

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