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SULLIVAN: The Yeomen of the Guard

spacer Cook, Holm; Drake, Hayes, Calvin; Allers. Production: Schaefer. VAI 4553, black and white, 79 mins., no subtitles


The Yeomen of the Guard holds a place of esteem among Gilbert & Sullivan aficionados. It boasts a more sweeping and operatic score than the "Big Three" — The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore — and is distinctly more serious in tone, even boasting an arguably tragic ending (depending on your point of view). 

The 1957 live telecast of this operetta, preserved on a kinescope and now available on DVD from Video Artists International, features an all-star cast that handles the material with aplomb. But G&S purists will surely be disappointed with the many cuts made in order to bring the production in at a lean seventy-nine minutes. Numbers such as the exciting (though arguably unnecessary) trio in Act I "Alas I waver to and fro" and the fun Act II duet "Rapture, Rapture" have been excised completely. Others have been slashed in half, including Elsie's aria "Though tear and long-drawn sigh" and even the Act I finale! The sad excisions aside, the stellar cast and deft musicality of music director Franz Allers make this historic broadcast more than worth a watch.

Alfred Drake and Barbara Cook steal the show in the juicy roles of Jack Point and Elsie Maynard. The expository beginning drags until their entrance, especially since the production makes strange use of Jack Point as a narrator in the beginning, a device that was probably meant to clarify early plot points but instead makes them even more confusing. Fortunately, this is dispensed with once the story gets going. Drake tones down his big Broadway baritone here for Jack Point's many patter songs and lets his humor and personality shine through instead. Cook's voice seems so ideally suited for Sullivan's music that it makes me wish she had recorded an album of G&S heroines. The late, great Celeste Holm gives a charming and flawless performance as the knowing Phoebe, and Bill Hayes, as Colonel Fairfax, delivers a vocally assured if somewhat stiff performance. 

The production itself is appropriately simple for what was a live telecast. Sets are minimal, costumes are singular, choreography is light, and the acting is presentational (to put it mildly). Most staging is limited to tableaux and single camera shots, but this allows the music to step into the spotlight. Allers's brisk tempos keep things moving, but the singers never fall behind or sacrifice diction. 

To quote another G&S masterpiece, the most ingenious paradox of this broadcast is that it will be both enjoyed and decried most by the staunchest fans of Gilbert & Sullivan. spacer


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