‘Sweethearts’ and ‘The Zoo,’ two antique Valentines, from Victorian Lyric Opera

Sadly, these Gilbert and Sullivan light operettas are showing their age.

Great Britain has a long and strong tradition of community players producing light operetta fare by the likes of Gilbert & Sullivan. The tradition migrated across the pond and sustained popularity well into the last half of the last century. Now, the Victorian Lyric Opera Company (VLOC) has produced a pair of Valentines, one by Mr. Gilbert and the other by Mr. Sullivan, in partnership with the community-centered Arts Barn in Gaithersburg. Sadly, the form is showing its age, and the dual offerings, The Zoo and Sweethearts, in different respects, seemed more than a little creaky.

Part of the popularity of the form for community productions has been that it’s a light lift for singers and audience alike. It demands of performers that they be able to deliver tuneful melodies with spry voices, to spit out crisp diction and clever fast phrases in what are called patter songs, and a pleasant-enough engagement with the audience without necessarily being able to convey character with any skilled acting nuance. For the audience, the topsy-turvy plots don’t overly tax the brain or the heart, and all’s well that ends well. It would seem that the program would be on point with VLOC’s mission to entertain and educate its community.

Tracy Davidson, Katherine L. Rogers, Sarah Robinson, James Rogers, Michael Beder (behind), Josh Milton, Felicity Brown, and Amanda Jones. Photo courtesy of Jack Rinaldi.

To my mind, the first problem was the de-coupling of its progenitors. The partnership of Gilbert & Sullivan produced 14 comic operettas, including its most often produced H.M.S Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. Now, most of us who know the history of their relationship know it was a “troubled marriage,” and there were stretches of time when the two did not speak to each other. Both tried their hand at independent projects, including Sweethearts, a little comedy penned by Gilbert in 1874, and the operetta The Zoo, composed by Sullivan with book by Bolton Rowe. Neither work has passed the test of time. It seems the Victorian gentlemen needed each other for their most successful ventures.

A challenge that has faced so many productions, including professional ones, this past year, has been the COVID-felling of performers. Community players are unlikely to have built-in understudies, but the rule of such companies is “We all must muck in.” And so they did, and for this they must be commended. But it did contribute to the uneven performances.

Of the two works, Sweethearts fared the least well, and the story was not convincingly set forth. A young Jenny (Sarah Robinson) gets visited by Young Henry (played in a gender-bending turn by Felicity Ann Brown) at her country home. Henry comes to say goodbye as he is going off to India to make his fortune as a colonialist. He attempts to declare his love and perhaps to carry her off with him, but both are confounded, and 30 years later, when he returns, their common destiny is no less clear.

During the duration of the show, I noticed audience heads cocked then slowly drooped to the right like a row of Modigliani portraits. Many were either as the characters on stage or nodding off.

The second work on the program launched with more energy under the direction of Amanda Jones. The music, with accompanist Sue McElroy, greatly added to the lift-off.

Are the two couples circling each other in the story the real animals on display in the setting of the work in a zoo? It’s a tale in part about an early animal rights activist and a lordship who would serve as her patron and a chemist who attempts suicide by letting himself into the bears’ enclosure.

There were two performers who stood out in the ensemble and most successfully delivered the G&S style. Robinson returns to the stage in The Zoo in the ingenue role of Eliza and shines with her lovely light soprano. She embodied her character and kept moment-to-moments alive by listening to others on the stage.

James Rogers (as Thomas) and Sarah Robinson (as Eliza) in ‘The Zoo.’ Photo courtesy of Jack Rinaldi.

James Rogers pretty much steals the show as a nobleman slumming in disguise. He’s a tall glass of water and a true physical performer. He manages to twist his body into pretzel shapes and fling his legs into the air in pure clown-like fun. He is also in full command of his rich baritone sound, equally versatile at delivering a patter song or love duet.

Unfortunately, the big ensemble numbers, usually the mark of a good G&S production, were marred by some screeching and general inability to achieve a good vocal blending.

I remind myself that the real mission of most community-based companies is to give participants a chance to be together, “knees up, Mother Brown,” and have a good time. On this point then, are we who witness the Victorian-inspired ensemble obliged only to cheer “Rule Britannia”?

Sweethearts & The Zoo plays Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 2 PM, through February 26, 2023, presented by the Victorian Lyric Opera Company in partnership with the Arts Barn at Gaithersburg Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD. Tickets — $22, $20 student (ages 15–21), $15 youth (ages 14 & under) — are available online, at the door, or by calling the box office at 301-258-6394.

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required in City of Gaithersburg facilities. Social distancing is also encouraged to the extent possible.

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Susan Galbraith
Playwright, librettist, songwriter, director, theater reviewer, and actress Susan Galbraith has worked in London, Singapore, New York, Minneapolis, Prague, and Boston before settling in DC. Her resume includes working with international directors including Peter Brooks, Miřenka Čechová, and Peter Sellars; choreographer Takao Tomono; and rock-and-roll superstar Prince. After moving to Washington, she helped found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and in the past decade led the development of original works across the spectrum of music-theater including musicals and opera. For over a decade, she was also pleased to support the greater Washington theater community as a happy member of the reviewing team of DC Theater Scene under Lorraine Treanor. She holds a BA from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and two graduate degrees, including a Fulbright fellowship. She now lives in Kalorama with three cats, a happy Samoyed, and a most understanding partner. You can read more of her theater writing here.


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