Who Lampoons the Lampooners?



Through comic operas like Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan gained international and lasting renown as great democratizers of the form, lampooning an upper crust audience under the protection of endless earworms. Great mischief-makers of the stage, they boldly stole into the keeps of high society, only to reflect it back as through a funhouse mirror for everyone to enjoy—absurd, distorted and more than a little lumpy. But did they go far enough? As accessible, catchy and hilarious as something like H.M.S. Pinafore may be, it is, after all, still an opera. With Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged, now playing in Florida Studio Theatre’s John C. Court Cabaret, creators Erik Schroeder and Matt Kahler take the operation one step further, reimagining the pair’s classic tunes in a stripped-down folk style that everyone can stomp their feet to.

It’s a coup for Schroeder, who first fell in love with theater through a summer performance in a local production of Penzance, later devouring Gilbert and Sullivan’s collected works and today holding them in the highest esteem. “They’re like Shakespeare,” he says. But beyond their idiomatic contributions to the language, it’s their music and lyrics that Schroeder wants to celebrate with Unplugged. Populist and revolutionary, he says, “They literally are the bridge between opera and contemporary music in theater.”

And Unplugged keeps the music front and center, playing out more like a troubadours’ concert than any sort of opera. Pulling from not only the Big Three—Pinafore, Penzance and Mikado—but also some “deep cuts” from the catalogue, the cast of five performs each through a lens of folk, bluegrass or rock and roll, replacing Sullivan’s careful orchestral instrumentation with guitars, fiddles and mandolins. The effect is not only a new appreciation for the sheer energy sometimes hidden beneath Victorian trappings, but a revelation of the impact their work had on those that came after. The chord progressions, counterpoints, melodies—all contributed to a new foundation for music in theater. “If Gilbert and Sullivan hadn’t taken opera and pulled it in this direction,” says Schroeder, “we wouldn’t have Cole Porter, we wouldn’t have George Gershwin, we wouldn’t have Rodgers and Hammerstein.” And as the musicians spontaneously break ranks into something a bit more contemporary, the audience will see just how far that impact spread. Between songs, the cast will also share stories about the famous pair.

As the playbill says, it may not be your grandmother’s Gilbert and Sullivan, but Unplugged undoubtedly embodies the same spirit. And although Sullivan was famously precious about his compositions, Schroeder thinks he would likely understand. “Gilbert and Sullivan would get a big kick out of the way that we have lovingly lampooned their work,” says Schroeder, “just by turning it on its head a little bit.”

Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged runs through September 23 in the Court Cabaret at Florida Studio Theatre.

Pictured: The cast of "Gilbert & Sullivan Unplugged." Photo courtesy of FST.

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