Last night’s opening of The Big Iolanthe at the Lewes Town Hall was truly a joyous event. The brainchild of conductor/composer/arranger Lee Reynolds, this is a jazz rewrite of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe. In Reynold’s words,
“Imagine Sullivan had been born in, say, 1900, and had grown up with jazz in his ears rather than Verdi. If he’d thought up all the same songs––identical melodic shapes and harmonies––but in jazz idiom, what might they have sounded like?”
Indeed, anyone wanting to know would have, I believe, come away from last night’s performance with that question answered very satisfactorily. Far from being just an intellectual exercise, though, this thing was a marvel on its own terms. First, something about Lee Reynolds and the work itself:
Reynolds states he’s not a prolific composer but rather one that agonizes over every note and is still rarely satisfied with what finally comes forth. A bit of Irving Berlin then, who famously remarked, “Songwriting is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” As one who was commissioned to write songs for Boosey & Hawkes, I know all too well the truth of those words. That being said, in Reynolds case, all the hand wringing paid off. Five years in the making and The Big Iolanthe is a testament to an inspired notion and the craftsmanship and perseverance to make it a reality.
My wife and I, both of us trained musicians, came to the performance last night, she with an intimate knowledge of the original G&S Iolanthe, and I who had heard one performance of it years ago. My wife estimates that around 80% of what the audience heard last night was closely based on the original score, given that much of Gilbert’s text was left unchanged and that Sullivan’s melodies were closely adhered to. She came away from it marveling at how wonderfully it was transformed and I at the wonderful new work I had just heard.
Lee Reynolds states that, “while I love jazz, I have never studied its mechanics.” Being a long-time jazz listener myself, I honestly don’t know how much better it could have been done.
So, how about the performance?
Well, let’s just say that my expectations on hearing an opening night of a complex score performed by a troop of very talented amateurs (with the exception of the 15-piece band) were surpassed on nearly every count. The singing was stylish and in tune, the dancing energetic and beautifully choreographed and the acting, if not often at a professional level was always engaging and enjoyable.
I won’t bore you with a synopsis of the story but anyone who is interested can read it here.
A few real hats-off moments––the first being Tim Freeman’s (Willis) song “When all night long a chap remains” which was pure professionalism and delight from start to finish. His was one of the few numbers in which I could understand every word that was sung (more on that in a bit), performed straight without a bit of tongue-in-cheek. His little dance moves in between verses were hilarious.
Closely following this was Gina Cameron as Queen of the Fairies, a far more involved role, who made a wonderful star turn singing “Oh, foolish fay.” Cameron has a formidable stage presence (in fact, one suspects she might have some pro experience), an expressive voice and she clearly relished the opportunity here to mince and mew at every double-entendre that the score threw at her, as well as perhaps hinting at a few of her own. A delight.
As the lovers, Sebastian Charlesworth (Strephon) and Lucy Freeman (Phyllis) made a very enjoyable pair and had the most meltingly beautiful music of the evening, duetting romantically in songs that twice ended in gorgeously blended unison singing.
Helen Crees’ Iolanthe was beautifully sung throughout and her 2nd Act song, “My lord, a suppliant at your feet” was very moving. She was also particularly funny in her scenes with the Queen.
The rest of the supporting cast was pretty uniformly excellent, energetic and stylish, the choral singing and dancing well rehearsed and jubilant. One has to give great credit to Andy Freeman’s terrific direction and Emily Murray’s smart and sparkling choreography.
As for the band––I could very happily have sat there and just listened to this band play without anyone else on stage. The players were top-notch and Reynold’s jazzy arrangements spot on. Much of the sparkle and fizz of this production is certainly due to the excitement that a real swing orchestra brings to the festivities.
As is often the case with a production of this type in a Town Hall where every character is individually miked, there were some occasional sound issues. Words were often lost, especially in the ensemble singing and often, too, with the soloists. It’s a nearly impossible task, an incredibly expensive venture that the pro theatres often don’t get right, and for this production it’s down to one man alone, Mark Greenwood. Mr. Greenwood, obviously a real pro himself worked valiantly to keep the sound warm and even. If he didn’t always succeed he is certainly to be forgiven. It was beyond his control.
It’s probably pointless to speculate on the longevity of this piece––there are undoubtedly far greater works that have been lost to obscurity as well as works of real mediocrity that run continuously on the West End. But keep an eye on this one. If there’s any justice The Big Iolanthe should go far.
The Big Iolanthe continues tonight (Thursday 29th Sept) tomorrow night and two performances on Saturday, 1st Oct. Ticket info can be found here.
by Paul Austin Kelly