‘Iolanthe’ to Fly into Longwood Gardens

Back row: Ross Druker, Joel Realberg, Michael Jeffrey Cohen, Gene Schneyer, A.J. Kait, Richard Siller, Joel Tillman and Norman Spielberg. Front row: Gail Cooper, Susan Wolf, Rachel Sigman, Allison Lieb Chiacchiere, Debby Appel and Nancy Morgenstern | Kate Riccardi

If you didn’t know any better, you might’ve thought you were walking into a Coachella-style fashion show at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre as flower crowns abounded in the house of the theater.

Fairies in purple and blue tulle dresses adjusted their wings and flower crowns as they received mic checks and notes ahead of performances of Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta performed by the Savoy Company May 18 and 19.

The cast will perform the show again at Longwood Gardens’ Open Air Theatre June 8 and 9 at 8:30 p.m., as well as the Royal Hall in Harrogate, England, for the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in August.

The story, which first opened at the Savoy Theatre in London in 1882, follows Strephon, a shepherd, who wants to marry Phyllis, a Ward of Chancery. However, Strephon — unbeknownst to Phyllis — is half-fairy, as his mother, the titular fairy Iolanthe, married a mortal and was subsequently banished for 25 years. Phyllis spies Strephon embracing a seemingly young woman, which turns out to be Iolanthe, who always looks about 17 as fairies do not grow old, and thinks he’s cheating on her.

Hijinks and conflicts ensue as the Lord Chancellor and peers in the House of Lords are also fawning after Phyllis, Strephon himself joins Parliament and a war between the mortal peers and the fairies forms until a solution is found.

In typical Gilbert and Sullivan style, in addition to biting political satire and a beautiful score, the show brings many laughs, to which many of its cast members can attest.

Lyric soprano Rachel Sigman plays the title role in the Savoy Company’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Iolanthe. | Helga Yang

“It’s a lot about how we make these rules that we don’t even remember why we have these rules but we protect them because it’s tradition,” explained Rachel Sigman, who plays Iolanthe. “And that’s a theme running through a lot of G&S that politically, that’s very prevalent. And also it’s about … we all should choose love over duty, being a good person over what we think society should do.”

The character Iolanthe also makes sacrifices for the benefit of her son, said Sigman, who has been with the Savoy Company for three years.

The company, however, started in 1901 after Philadelphian Alfred Reginald Allen saw Gilbert and Sullivan works performed in England and wanted their productions performed locally.

Sigman, who grew up attending Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, has also been in productions of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance with Savoy, whose music director, Peter Hilliard, was Sigman’s middle school choir teacher.

“It’s just been a great time. I love working with everyone here, and they’re very good to me,” said Sigman, as Debby Appel walked into the dressing room, clad in sideburns, a mustache and hat.

Appel, whose father was the late Cantor Sam Appel, has been with the company since 1990. As she sings most naturally in the tenor range, she’s played male parts for the last five productions she’s been in.

“At my age, I make a cuter guy than a girl,” she joked.

Appel participates in Savoy, which is volunteer-run, with her husband, Gene Schneyer, who, with a laugh, claimed responsibility for his wife’s “Gilbert and Sullivan addiction” as he performed in a different Gilbert and Sullivan troupe in the ’80s and finally convinced her to audition as well.

“It’s the music, the wit. It’s still current,” he said of the musical duo’s longevity. Iolanthe in particular, with its satirical lens on the House of Lords and the idea of political parties, has apt ties to our current politics, he added, noting the story features “a political overclass that is sorely out of touch.”

Sigman noted its contemporary relevance, citing topics that arise in the piece as well as other Gilbert and Sullivan works, such as race and gender.

“It’s very political but the things that are eternal about it, they don’t change,” she noted. “I know that we have lots of people in positions of power that are completely inept and there’s a lot of rules in our society that don’t necessarily make sense that we have to follow, and that’s a big thing about this show.”

However, she added, they could get away with the stories they told because of the humor they infused into the scripts.

“In every Gilbert and Sullivan show, there’s always a big exploration of gender, politics — it’s just good satire,” she said. “If it wasn’t in a comedic context they couldn’t be making the statements that they do, but because it’s jokes, they can say so many truths.”

Joked Ross Druker, who plays the Lord Chancellor, “Even though they’re written 100 some odd years ago, making fun of the aristocrats never goes out of style.”

He noted there are Jewish values to be found in the production as well as within the company itself. Most notably, he said, the idea of community.

“The one thing I’ve always liked about Judaism is that … it’s not about a faith so much as it is about the community,” he said. “A theater group like this is nothing if not community.”

Sigman is looking forward to the upcoming Longwood Gardens performances as well as the Harrogate performance, which Savoy participates in every other year. She wasn’t able to make it to England the last time they went as she was going to Israel on Birthright, she recalled.

The England trip will be part of a very European summer for Sigman, as she will also perform in a production of the opera L’incoronazione di Poppea in Germany.

In the meantime, she’s enjoyed getting to perform this particular production, with its supernatural characters and sprinkled references to Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, and have the unique chance to live out childhood dreams.

“I have an amazing job. Like, I get to be a mermaid in this show, I get to be a fairy and I get to be a princess in the show. I’m living my 5-year-old dream,” she laughed.

mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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