As long as there are legal systems and other creaky, cumbersome power structures, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas will continue to be funny. That longevity is one reason the Washington Savoyards enjoy their cult following. Happily, the Savoyards refuse to stay rooted in the past. Their passionate commitment, realized in last night's double bill of "Trial by Jury" and "The Sorcerer," is to make their patron saints speak to modern audiences. While many G&S companies mummify these operettas in eternal Victoriana, the Savoyards don't mind peppering their scripts with references to dictators and oil price hikes.
A setback for modern audiences is that some of Gilbert's material is outmoded. The premise of "Trial by Jury" makes no sense unless you know that marital engagements were once considered legally binding in England. However, there are immortal aspects to "Trial": the appropriation of legal mumbo-jumbo and archaic references to the noblest satiric purposes.
This musically undistinguished piece was served by a coherent ensemble, but hampered by weak principals. As the Defendant, Christian Mendenhall's reptilian characterization worked beautifully. His voice, however, showed rough edges. No saint, either, the Plaintiff's role needed this kind of two-faced acting. But Nancy Peery Marriott's performance simply lacked focus. Her voice, though lovely in places, did not project well.
While "Trial" dismantles regulations and institutions, "The Sorcerer" takes on fads and social movements. The blueblood Alexis schemes to ensure the happiness of an entire village with a magic philter -- a love potion invented, advertised and marketed by the sorcery firm of Wells & Co. Alexis's vision of aristocratic ladies and gents adoring their liverymen and upstairs maids is certainly inspired by the outpourings of well-bred Fabians, whose armchair socialism was timely with Gilbert's gags. In addition, a pointed fascination with and uneasiness about Britain's new breed of merchant is embraced in the unscrupulous role of Wells, through which Jon Riley slithered perfectly.
"Sorcerer" is a more ambitious and complicated assignment than "Trial," carried out over the course of two acts and about an hour. The score is wonderful in the way that it subverts your expections of references from Wagner and Donizetti to chemically induced love. Yes, there is a London vaudeville version of the Tristan "magic potion" chord, in a hilariously unexpected spot.
"The Sorcerer's" dull spots are sometimes translated into weighty blocking, as when one character sings and another stands frozen onstage. More inspired directing might have worked wonders. As Aline Sangazure, Jennifer Hughes-Lopez proved most capable of overcoming these setbacks. Her mezzo voice never lost its rich sheen and her comedy remained sincere if a bit heavy-handed.