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Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018 1 year ago

'Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged' puts 21st-century spin on duo’s greatest hits

The latest Florida Studio Theatre cabaret show strips classic Gilbert and Sullivan songs of context — a simple idea that's simply brilliant.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

“Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged” is electrifying fun. This touring revue’s got a lot going for it, including the music of dramatist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan and a talented group of performers giving new life to said music. The only thing missing is nostalgia. And that’s a good thing.

Nostalgic appeal is an artistic obituary. Living art forms need not apply. If you like something because it’s old and not because it’s good, it’s clearly time to say your prayers and bring out the shovels.

I’m happy to report that the art of Gilbert and Sullivan is alive and well.

Let’s start with their living legacy. When it comes to musical theater, G&S were the original powerhouse duo. They arguably invented the art form; their operettas set the template for the comic musicals of the 20th century. Their influence is strong in the songs of The Marx Brothers — and even the Monty Python troupe.

Impact on future comedians aside, the duo wrote some great tunes. Five great musicians bring their songs to lusty life: Mario Aivazian, Dana Saleh Omar, Shawn Pfautsch, Lauren Vogel and Matt Kahler.

Their clever revue strips the songs of context. It’s a simple idea — and simply brilliant. In musical theater, every song has a narrative job. When G&S are the storytellers, that’s a lot of heavy lifting. Removing the pirates, maids and Mikados lets the songs stand on their own terms. It also gives the performers space to play around. And they do.

Music Director Matt Kahler is responsible for all the arrangements, which have been modernized, in the show. Courtesy photo

When he’s not playing glockenspiel, keyboard or bass guitar, Aivazian gets to show off his vast knowledge of G&S lore. (His bandmates trot out a Wheel of Fortune spinner, and randomly grill him on all fourteen of their operettas.) Pfautsch is versatile on mandolin, sax and clarinet. Omar flaunts her skills as a flautist and creates haunting melodies on the saw with a bow; her vocal range and control is nothing less than operatic.

Pfautsch is a deft acoustic string player, whose vocal range ascends to a goblet-shattering falsetto. (Which he does, in a woman’s wig and horned-rim sunglasses, on several numbers.) Vogel does her own gender-bending turn in “When I was a Lass,” — a timeless ode celebrating a bureaucrat’s climb to their level of incompetence. Vogel’s blistering on the banjo, and a fine fiddle player, too — I expected her instrument to burst into flames in a riff from Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Along with mastering a decent fake British accent, Kahler is the real deal on the electric bass. (When he started wailing, I expected pyrotechnics as well.) As a vocalist, Kahler also doesn’t skip a beat on the machine-gun-fire patter of the “Modern Major-General’s Song.” It’s the show’s closing number — and the closest thing to a 19th-century rap song. His blistering vocals send the crowd home happy.

English composer Sir Arthur Sullivan established the distinctive English form of the operetta with W.S. Gilbert. Courtesy photo

Aside from playing a mean guitar and surviving a notorious tongue-twister, Kahler is also the show’s music director, who created all the pop-song arrangements. That may sound like a gimmick, but it’s actually the core idea. G&S were the original pop songwriters. Everything hinges on that.

The revue takes this notion as far as it can go. Aside from the pop treatment of G&S standards, it teases you with needle-drops of contemporary hits. When you least expect it, there’s a bit of Lennon and McCartney’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” a snippet of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” or a dash of Green Day’s “Basket Case.” Apart from the anachronistic giggles, these samples point out the musical DNA that G&S shared with contemporary hit makers.

It’s a valid point, if a tad misleading. The pop charts are filled with fluff, idiocy and rip-offs. Gilbert and Sullivan were funny, smart and one-of-a-kind. Their compositions were fearlessly original. Their social satire had a rapier’s edge. Their word play was not a game for amateurs.

The "Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged" performers are up for the game. These talented musicians never miss a note. Well, hardly ever. No. Actually never.

Whether you’re a Gilbert and Sullivan purist or a sneering iconoclast, you’ll have a great time at their smart, edgy, cheeky, original revue.

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