Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 24, 2017

A Gilbert & Sullivan Convert

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge & Pittsfield, MA
by Shera Cohen

I never enjoyed the music of Gilbert & Sullivan, or so I thought. You might feel the same? After last summer’s hit of Barrington Stage Company’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” and this season’s enormously fun Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” at Berkshire Theatre Group, I have become a convert to the unique and quirky collaborative style created by G&S and later replicated by Willson.

What do these two productions have in common other than the many obvious elements of this genre of music? Answer: The Patter Song. We have all heard it, maybe you have even sung it. For today’s generation, the tunes are like Rap. For Baby Boomers, remember Shirley Ellis’ “The Name Game”? For opera aficionados, think of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.” And, Broadway lovers can attempt to sing Professor Harold Hill’s signature piece, “Ya’ Got Trouble.” More difficult yet from the same musical is “The Music Man’s” opening number “Rock Island” (aka “Ya’ Don’t Know the Territory”).

Patter is a song on speed; one that starts with fast music and lyrics, then notches it up even faster, eventually at lightning speed (yet never losing the quality of the fine music). The requirement of all light opera, like those typified by Gilbert & Sullivan, is the inclusion of at least one Patter Song. It is a feat of musical prowess and tongue twisting that challenges even the best (and fastest) of singers. Key to the Patter Song, and a component that makes it even more difficult, if that is possible, is precise articulation of the lyrics.
The Pirates of Penzance

The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ “I’ve Got a Little Twist” are expert at Patter, as shown in “Pirates of Penzance’s” “Modern Major General” and other ditties. The troupe of six plus amazing pianist/arranger Mark York, took the Colonial Theatre’s stage this week, not only performing the best of G&S, but a smattering of Broadway as well. The singers mashed it up (their words) to create many clever and smooth medleys. The sextet sang as an ensemble, in trios, duos, and each was given the opportunity to shine in a solo. In total, eight G&S operettas were represented. Interspersed were short tutorials on G&S that added to the cabaret-type program; i.e. I never knew that Gilbert was the librettist and Sullivan the composer