Nothing cools a hot, humid Baltimore summer like the refreshing airs and the dry, bracing wit of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. And this summer, the Young Victorian Theater Company (affectionately known by Baltimoreans as the "Young Vic") celebrates its 25th anniversary of making summers more bearable with its productions of G&S.; From July 8 through July ZTC 22, this no-longer-so-young company will present the most popular of the operettas, "The Mikado."
"I guess we should rename ourselves the Middle-Aged Vic," says the Young Vic's Brian Goodman, 39, who joined the company in 1975 and became its general manager in 1977. "We're all a lot older than when we started."
In the 25 years it has been producing G&S; operettas, the Young Vic has survived the death of several other operetta companies in the Baltimore area. To celebrate this 25th anniversary, therefore, every aspect of this "Mikado" -- from the costumes to the program -- will be heavily accented in silver.
The Young Vic began in the summer of 1971, when some Gilman and Bryn Mawr students (including future film star Bess Armstrong) banded together to form what was then called the Gilman Summer Theatre and to perform Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe." And what has changed has been mostly to the good. It may have started as a high school program with a $10,000 budget, but the Young Vic is now a semi-professional company -- a fully professional orchestra with paid professionals in the lead singing roles and amateurs in supporting ones -- with a budget of $70,000.
What hasn't changed is the enthusiasm of the people who put on the performances -- from general manager Goodman down -- and their reluctance to tamper with what has clearly been a winning formula.
"This is an art form that is more than 100 years old and is more popular than ever -- particularly in this country," Goodman says. "You don't fool around with what works."
That does not mean, however, that the Young Vic's G&S; productions are corseted by the Victorian past. Gilbert and Sullivan themselves poked fun at contemporary events in Great Britain -- among the many things "Mikado" satirizes was the late-19th-century British craze for anything Japanese -- and it doesn't hurt to use G&S; to poke occasional fun at the late 20th century.
Dr. Steve Goodman (no relation to Brian) will take the updated role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of Titipu, in "The Mikado."
"Almost all the lyrics in Ko-Ko's list song as they were originally written are incomprehensible because of their Victorian references," says Dr. Goodman, who is a pediatrician at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions as well as a professional singer. He has been singing lead roles with the Young Vic every summer since 1987.
"So it doesn't hurt to do a wholesale rewrite job in that number," adds Dr. Goodman. The altered song talks about Ellen R. Sauerbrey's attempt to invalidate the gubernatorial vote and makes other political references. "You have to make it current, or you miss the pungency of G&S;'s relationship to their audience."
The relationship Gilbert and Sullivan enjoyed with their audience was much better than the one Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan suffered through with each other. To put it politely, they did not particularly enjoy each other's company. Nevertheless, during their 25-year collaboration, they created 14 comic musical dramas that have been loved, sometimes fanatically, by the world's English-speaking people.
Gilbert and Sullivan might have been surprised by the adulation they continue to inspire. Sullivan, who composed the music, called his collaborations with Gilbert "slavery," believing that his popular music for the operettas betrayed his obligations to serious music. The more practical-minded Gilbert's chief concerns were with box-office receipts and with goading the stubborn Sullivan into yet one more collaboration. Though each was successful without the other, none of what either wrote by himself has endured. There was magic in the ampersand.
That magic continues to affect the 100 or so people who work on the Young Vic's G&S; productions every summer.
"There are a lot of G&S; fanatics around," Brian Goodman, a partner in the law firm Wright, Constable & Skeen, says with a touch of understatement. "Most of our people are very busy with their own careers and do this because they love musical theater in general and G&S; in particular. When I was a student at Gilman, I wanted to be either an actor or a lawyer. I satisfy my theatrical cravings by running the company."
Who: The Young Victorian Theater Company
When: July 8, 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 8:15 p.m.; July 16 at 3 p.m.
Where: Centennial Hall at the Bryn Mawr School, 109 W. Melrose Ave., in Roland Park
Tickets: $18.50-$21.50 for adults; $12.50 for children 12 and under
Call: (410) 323-3077