Visy Theatre (Queensland Musical Theatre)


Music by Arthur Sullivan, lyrics by W S Gilbert, book by Ian Taylor

Amateur production

Fact: Sir Arthur Sullivan despised the comic operas he wrote in conjunction with W S Gilbert – he always considered himself a classical composer.

Fact: Gilbert couldn’t stand Sullivan’s womanising, obsession with high society and name-dropping.

Fact: Richard D’Oyly Carte spent as much time trying to make peace between these two stubborn men as he did making them (and himself) very very rich. BR>
Fact: Not all the 14 works in the G&S canon were smash hits, but the duelling duo influenced most musical comedy well into the 20th century, and their works are still performed to great delight all over the world, constantly being updated now that they’re out of copyright, and often sent up rotten.

And even if we find the plots ridiculous and the operas themselves rather dull these days, Gilbert’s wonderful lyrics which Sullivan set to unforgettable melodies remain part of the English-speaking legacy, and even people who don’t know wouldn’t know their Yum-Yum from their Pitti-Sing in a dark alley (not that you’d find them there, I hope) know about the three little maids from school.

But do we want, instead of yet another interminable production of Patience, a tired old concert version of G&S hits, a selection of the best-of with no linking narrative? Probably not, any more, and so when Ian Taylor was looking for a newly exciting way to present some of the old favourites, he decided on a bio-documentary illustrated by the songs themselves, and so in 1975 Tarantara was born, and has remained one of the most popular biographical plays ever written.

Brian and Denise Cahill, the stalwarts of the Brisbane musical comedy scene, have revived the piece as a Christmas offering, and it’s as deliciously amateur as all those G&S events I saw as a child, with an odd assortment of characters who basically just want to sing and have fun, and set the audience’s feet tapping.

It’s very much a curate’s egg production, with some seriously beautiful voices, outstanding among them Louise Prickett as Josephine, Mabel and Yum-Yum, where her classical training and experience are very much in evidence. Preston Oh has a potentially fine voice, although it isn’t always sustained in the longer pieces he has to sing, but he takes on a number of roles in an always genial manner – although I did find the Fu Manchu beard rather distracting. And Brian Cahill made a compulsory appearance as the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, giving the younger singers a lesson in both memory and clarity of diction.

Ah yes, diction! It’s always a problem with G&S, when so many of the songs are pitched very high, as was the Victorian taste, and the sopranos in particular are often difficult to understand. But they all struggled through, and we got most of the lines, and if it wasn’t the most polished production of Tarantara I’ve ever seen, it was certainly the best-dressed.

These are the finest costumes I’ve seen in an amateur production in Brisbane (congratulations to Doreen Omiros and her talented crew), and the production made up visually what it often lacked in musical terms. A lighter hand on the piano from William Liehr and Anita Thomas-Campbell might have helped and, in his portrayal of Arthur Sullivan, Liehr might have showed some facial expression, even if he was suffering from what, giving him the benefit of the doubt, sounded like a bad sore throat. And couldn’t he have looked a bit cleaner and more stylish? Sullivan did mix with royalty, after all.

Once you got past the dreadful fake beard and the jacket that was three sizes too big, Matthew Parakas made an amusingly frazzled D’Oyly Carte, and Christopher Andrews made the most of his role as the blustering W S Gilbert, and also sang very well in his other multifarious roles.

The English National Opera or even Opera Australia it ain’t, but it’s all good clean fun, and as we don’t get to see the sleazier side of Sullivan’s sex life as portrayed in Mike Leigh’s film Topsy Turvy, it’s safe, and silly, and quite splendid in its own way. And if you laugh in the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons, I for one can find it in my heart to forgive you, because I did the same, especially as Sullivan reminded me of a certain pompous cleric I once knew, which perhaps explains why I couldn’t take the character seriously.

Directors: Denise and Brian Cahill

Choreographer: Denise Cahill

Wardrobe: Doreen Omiros

Playing 28 November – 9 December 2007: Wednesday – Saturday 8pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday 1pm

Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes, one interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 5th December 2007)