Classical music and church – not necessarily traditional beacons of hilarity. Well, Concord Light Opera, with some help from theatrical wizards Gilbert and Sullivan, are conspiring to change that, at least for three nights in March.
Concord Light Opera continues its resurrection after more than a decade of dormancy with its second annual show, Princess Ida, at the South Congregational Church on March 8, 9 and 10. Taking its cue from Gilbert and Sullivan’s playful style, the organization looks to again blend harmonies and high jinks in the kind of lighthearted romp not often associated with a house of worship.
“We have a blast,” said Linda Ashford, the show’s director. “Our rehearsals are never work. We just play and have fun and laugh a lot.”
Gilbert and Sullivan were the Ben and Jerry of their time, effortlessly blending ingredients that seem to clash in classical music and humor (flavor idea: Pirates of Pez-ance. All the fun of candy that looks like headache medicine without the plastic dispenser!). That style lends itself particularly well to community theater, and the response to last year’s production of Patience seemed to bear that out. Though a Thursday performance was sparsely attended, Friday and Saturday shows at the Unitarian Universalist Church were crowded with boisterous fans.
“One of the best nights I ever had performing on stage in the 27 years I’ve been doing this was doing Patience on Friday night last year,” Eric Halter, who has a role in this year’s performance, as well, said. “We had an audience that was so enthusiastic. They were with us from the first time anyone walked on stage. That’s the power of Gilbert and Sullivan – they can generate that kind of laughter and enjoyment with people.”
Just like the IRS!
That’s not really true. In fact, it was the IRS that pulled the plug on the Northern New England chapter of the Victorian Society when it was performing Gilbert and Sullivan shows in Concord about 20 years ago. A group of dedicated performers from that era tried to rebuild the program eight or nine years ago, Ashford said, though those efforts proved unsuccessful. Only when a benefactor appeared with enough money to get a performance off the ground two years ago did Concord Light Opera emerge, bringing back a tradition that never truly died.
“We were in the process of mounting our sixth production, which was going to be Patience – we had just had auditions and were in the middle of rehearsals – when the national organization of the Victorian Society ran into some issues with the IRS. We had a $3,000 cushion and the IRS took it,” Ashford said. “It was extremely devastating to have that whisked out from under us and nine months later discovering there’s no way to go forward.”
Almost two decades later, a stab at a resurgence proved fruitful.
“We finally got up the nerve to go to the church and ask if they would allow us to do it there,” Ashford said. “We were successful this time putting the show together, and we found somebody who gave us our original cushion of funding so we could pay for the stuff we needed to prior to getting money in for ticket sales.”
Concord Light Opera’s business model is a simple one: sell tickets, pay back the benefactor loan and give the rest of the profits to the church hosting the show. Last year the group was able to give more than $3,000 to the Unitarian church. The South Congregational Church seats up to 600 – almost three times the capacity of the Unitarian church – meaning if all the tickets were sold for all three March shows, the group would raise $36,000.
Tickets are $20 each, or $15 for seniors and children. Tickets will be available through the South Congregational Church website at southchurchconcord.org or by calling the church at 224-2521. The shows on March 8 and 9 are at 8 p.m., with a 3 p.m. matinee March 10.
The cast of the show features a handful of people who have been involved since the days of the Victorian Society, as well as members of the church choirs at both the Unitarian Universalist Church and South Congregational Church, as well as members of the Concord Chorale. The hope, Ashford said, is to continue to build the organization and draw contributors from other local church choirs and perhaps perform at other churches in the future.
Getting the first show off the ground last year was no easy task. Ashford not only helped organize the resurgence and directed the show but also made nine Army coats and seven dresses and threatened to crack a few knuckles if certain people didn’t take part.
“It was all going up and begging someone to do this and begging someone to do that,” Ashford admitted. “I may have strong-armed a few people, threatened them.”
Most went willingly, and even more people are already involved this year. A large set is being constructed, costumes are being designed and researched and the show will feature a proper playbill.
One arm that didn’t need twisting last year was Halter’s. He’s been comfortable on stage for years and was more than agreeable to involvement in an entertaining local production.
“I love musicals and I love going up on stage and making a ham out of myself,” Halter, who met Ashford singing in the choir at the UUC, said. “It’s really a labor of love on Linda’s part. She’s very passionate about Gilbert and Sullivan, and it was interesting that there are a lot of like-minded people who feel the same way. Some people might have the sense that Gilbert and Sullivan is kind of fuddy- duddy, maybe funny in an odd way, but the great thing about musical theater is when you see it on stage live there’s so much that comes through in the pantomime and acting and singing that’s just hilariously funny. It’s fun to rehearse and fun to perform.”
Ashford feels the same way, a sense perhaps enhanced by the fact that she’s been through the frustrating low points and guided the organization back to its current heights. If she has anything to say about it, the tradition will certainly continue.
“I remember after the Friday night performance last year, someone called me out into the audience to talk and said, ‘Here’s our director,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’ve done it,’ ” Ashford said. “When I sat back and watched a lot of it, it was good.”