The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Maine is approaching its 50th anniversary in 2026, a milestone for any community theater group. Its members have worked hard over the years to make sure the comic operas created by lyricist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan between 1871 and 1896 reach a Maine audience.
Yet, before it reaches that anniversary, the society needs to make some major changes to recapture the reputation it had for quality in the mid-1990s, when it won an international competition in Buxton, England, with a production of “Utopia, Ltd.”
This year’s annual offering at The Grand in Ellsworth, “The Gondoliers; or, the King of Barataria,” wouldn’t make it past the first round of the 27th International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival this August. Artistic Director Dorothy Ahlf Wheatcraft and Music Director Rebecca Edmonson tarnished the group’s reputation with this amateurish production.
“The Gondoliers,” written in 1889, was the duo’s last successful production of the 14 on which Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated. The plot of the musical, which takes place in Venice, includes Gilbert and Sullivan’s usual swipes at the monarchy and the United Kingdom’s rigid class structure. There is also a missing prince, stolen as a baby, and thwarted love, followed by an “all is well” ending.
At Saturday’s performance, actors stumbled over lyrics and dialogue. In the opening number, a gondolier literally stumbled, then tumbled down a set of stairs, nearly taking two other performers with him. About half of the singers could not be heard, let alone understood, over the orchestra, whose players far too often were off key.
To recapture the excellence the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Maine was known for, whoever directs the 50th anniversary show needs to add a week, if not two, to the rehearsal schedule, so that actors know their lines and the song lyrics by the opening performance. The society needs to outfit its lead characters with head mics so they can be heard, and the orchestra members need to spend more time practicing together and alone.
Those steps also might help the group recapture its audience. At Saturday’s matinee, there were more people on stage and in the orchestra pit than in the audience.
That said, “The Gondoliers” was not a total disaster. There were several standout performances from either longtime society members or young singers with exceptional vocal talent.
The former include Roland Dube (Duke of Plaza-Toro), Sandi Blanchette (Duchess of Plaza-Toro) and Jason Wilkes (Luiz, the duke’s attendant). They could be heard and understood. All three understand and embraced Gilbert and Sullivan’s satiric sense of humor without going too far and clowning on stage.
Celeste Mittelhauser (Casilda) as the daughter of the duke and duchess was by far the most talented cast member. The soprano sang with strength, clarity and emotion. She grew up performing in the chorus of the society’s show but has outgrown them by leaps and bounds.
As gondolier brothers, S. Michael Smith (Marco) and Pepin Mittelhauser (Giusippi) were delightful. They worked well together. Mittelhauser, who is the brother of Celeste Mittelhauser, has an unusually strong tenor voice that he projected far into the audience.
The gondoliers’ sweethearts, Tessa (Rebecca Goff) and Gianetta (Lauren Billings), were no match vocally for their male partners. Both women could barely be heard over the orchestra. Their performances would have been enhanced greatly by the use of head mics, which are standard in musicals produced by community theater groups such as Some Theatre Company in Bangor and at many Maine high schools.
The set, designed by Peter Miller and Wheatcraft, and the costumes, created by Stephanie Urquhart Dumas, were wonderful. They, more than anything else, transported the audience from a Maine winter to the sunshine and beauty of Venice, where the story unfolds.
The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Maine’s production of “The Gondoliers” will be performed through Sunday at The Grand in Ellsworth. For information, call 667-9500 or visit gilbertsullivanmaine.org.