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A mostly charming 'Yeomen'

For 33 summers now, the Young Victorian Theatre Company has devoted its energies to the honorable cause of Gilbert and Sullivan. You might think that such singlemindedness would have turned into dead-endedness by now - there are, after all, only 13 G&S; works, and only a handful of those would be considered box-office-safe in this country - but the semi-professional troupe shows no signs of tiring. Its current production puts the spotlight on one of the less popular pieces, The Yeomen of the Guard and, for the most part, does it justice.

With Yeomen, both Gilbert and Sullivan successfully stretched the boundaries of the operetta as they had come to define it. For all of its witty wordplay and stock characters, this work has a deeper, even darker side.

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Like Donizetti's comic opera The Elixir of Love, Yeomen has genuinely human hearts beating - and aching - beneath the laughs and amusing situations of the plot. The sentiment is never heavy-handed, and it never disturbs the flow (the saddest moment in the whole operetta is the very last); it simply enhances the whole experience.

To extract all of Yeomen's riches would require consistently top-notch singers and a solid orchestra. That the Young Vic cannot provide. It helps to perform the complete score, too, rather than the nipped-and-tucked version here. But Saturday night's opener had distinct charms nonetheless.

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Director Roger Brunyate managed to keep things from looking too cramped on the small stage of the Gilman School's Alumni Auditorium. For once, occasional use of aisle space in the theater didn't look hokey; the cast really needed the extra room.

Brunyate, who also designed the sets, had a knack for keeping things moving nimbly and creating some telling stage pictures (enhanced when Douglas Nelson's lighting cooperated). The execution scene at the end of Act 1 made a particularly strong impression, effectively matching the remarkable music, with its almost Il Trovatore-like weight and power.

In many ways, the lead character of Yeomen is Jack Point, the jester left unhappy, perhaps fatally so, at the final curtain. The role calls for a level of vocal clarity and smoothness that Ryan Stadler couldn't quite muster. But his phrasing, like his acting, had real flair. The little sobs in his voice when he started I Have a Song to Sing, O! in the finale hit home.

Aside from iffy top notes, J Austin Bitner offered sufficient vocal and theatrical dash as Fairfax. Heather Lockard, as Elsie, was taxed only when the music called for grand operatic stretches; otherwise, her sure, vibrant singing complemented a winning characterization.

Catrin Davies was a charming Phoebe with bright vocalism and flawless diction. J.J. Hobbs, as Dame Carruthers, was another vibrant, admirably distinct singer, and she had fun with the character's stuffy manner, too.

Surely inspired by the incomparably unkempt character of Baldrick on the BBC comedy series Blackadder, Troy Clark had a field day as Wilfred Shadbolt. His thick, working-class accent and deft delivery of spoken and sung lines alike left quite a mark.

The cast also included the pleasant voices of John Artz (Leonard) and Chris Rhodovi (Sir Richard). Harvey D. Fort's Sergeant Meryll could have used more vocal and acting force. The chorus couldn't always summon a smooth sound or maintain coordination, but did sensitive work along the way. Same for the orchestra. Although J. Ernest Green had some trouble keeping everyone on the same track, his conducting revealed a well-placed affection for Sullivan's beautifully crafted score.

"The Yeomen of the Guard" will be repeated at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Gilman School, 5407 Roland Ave. Tickets are $27, $20 for children 12 and under. Call 410-323-3077.

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BSO's MusicFest

Mario Venzago, the irrepressible artistic director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Summer MusicFest, made his first podium appearance at this year's series Friday night at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. As usual, the Swiss-born conductor first apologized for his English, livened up the crowd with a few charming remarks and then plunged into the action.

The bubbly, pseudo-baroque Suite from Le bourgeois gentilhomme by Richard Strauss is music perfectly suited to Venzago's natural elan. Too bad the performance sounded so under-rehearsed. Even concertmaster Jonathan Carney, ordinarily a beacon of technical suavity and expressive power, fell short in his extended solos.

Things straightened out quickly for Schumann's Piano Concerto. Except for an anemic oboe, the BSO provided smooth, rich-toned support for Nelson Freire, whose calm command of the keyboard, lush range of coloring and unerringly tasteful phrasing caught the full weight and beauty of the piece. Venzago provided seamless dove-tailing between pianist and ensemble.

Rossini's brilliantly constructed Overture to William Tell, with a rollicking finale unfortunately turned by radio and television into a cliche more than a century after it was written, still packs quite a punch when approached with the care Venzago lavished on it. The haunting opening passage for cellos (principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn and his colleagues soared here), the ensuing thunderstorm and lilting folk song (Jane Marvine shaped the English horn solo eloquently, with supple counterpoint from principal flutist Emily Skala) - all unfolded compellingly.

I wish Venzago had taken more time letting that folk song unwind before unleashing the overture's famous, brassy charge, but the charge itself bounded along delectably, with particularly forceful support from the trombones.

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Venzago will lead the BSO in a Bach/Beethoven program at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $18 to $30. Call 410-783-8000.


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