Gilbert & Sullivan return to the Skylight New Year’s Eve with a wacky revue that takes a modern approach

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W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. – Photo: LittleAugury.com

History tells us that librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan hated each other so much that they wouldn’t communicate for years at a time. When they finally did collaborate, many of their works were left unfinished because they were unsatisfactory to one or the other – or both of them.

But like the proverbial little girl with the little curl, when they were good they were very, very good, and their Victorian-era operettas such as “The Pirates of Penzance,” “H.M.S. Pinafore” and others enjoy great popularity to this day. Milwaukee theatrical impresario Dale Gutzman has combined some of the pair’s best with his own wacky interpretations to create “Here’s Howdy Do: The Mischievous World of Gilbert and Sullivan,” which opens at Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre on News Year’s Eve.

The musical revue is the 25th Skylight production directed by Gutzman, who’s the artistic director for Milwaukee’s Off the Wall Theatre. Gutzman also wrote the show, and audience members can expect a collision of silliness and song.

“The Skylight thinks this is something I do especially well,” says Gutzman, who also was responsible for the “The Bathtub Gin Revue,” “Beertown Burlesque” and “Holiday Punch” – all done in the Gilbert and Sullivan vein. “I write other things as well, but most people seem to know me for my satiric revues.”

Fans of Gutzman’s “An Evening With Gilbert and Sullivan,” produced for the Skylight in 2010, can expect something completely different this time. In fact, audiences should anticipate an entirely new approach to some very familiar material.

“The show is a series of G & S songs performed in totally different ways,” Gutzman says. “We are doing some as nightclub jazz pieces, some as parody, and many with just a bit of new or contemporary feeling.”

The production includes men singing songs written for women, women singing songs written for men and audience participation using cellphones. There’s a production of the “Five-Minute Mikado,” complete with a dance number that will truncate the famous songs and reduce the action to just 300 seconds.

“We analyze humorously the G & S formula and the fact that all of their shows are really exactly the same,” Gutzman says. “We also do some pieces that the famous team created alone, without each other.”

Gilbert and Sullivan each had modest careers prior to coming together in 1871 for the first of 14 comic operas. Sullivan, the son of a military bandmaster and six years Gilbert’s junior, had always wanted to be a serious classical composer. Gilbert, the son of a naval surgeon, had early on developed a “topsy-turvy style” that created absurd situations drawn to their logical conclusions. He was part of London’s theatrical reform movement, helping to elevate the acceptability of theater in his day.

The pair was at odds starting early in their joint career. Gilbert was confrontational, but thin-skinned, while Sullivan avoided conflict whenever possible. Gilbert’s topsy-turvy world often skewered Great Britain’s class distinctions, something that complicated Sullivan’s pursuit of patronage and support from the upper classes. These differences, coupled with ongoing artistic disagreements, strained the pair’s working relationship right up through their last production – “The Grand Duke.” Composed in 1896, it was considered by many to be an outright failure.

But the duo had a profound effect on modern musical theater and literature. The works of author P.G. Wodehouse, the songs of Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman, and even Monty Python’s Flying Circus all show an influence, and their work continues to be revived in various forms.

“The friction between the two helped elevate Gilbert’s silliness to beauty through the use of Sullivan’s music,” Gutzman says. “They were very much like the ‘Saturday Night Live’ of their day, if SNL (had) to use Sondheim music each week to get its points across.”

Gutzman’s Skylight production, which stars vocalists Niffer Clarke, Paul Helm, Ray Jivoff and Diane Lane, aspires to combine both the highlights and lowlights of a dual career that has provided moments of both beauty and laughter to audiences for over a century. However, it’s not designed to be about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves.

“This show is about what they do to us, rather than about their lives,” Gutzman says. “It’s about how they get under our skin, how we recall certain memories with them and about how we share the joys of love and laughter through them.”

There is no better way to ring in the New Year, Gutzman says.

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of “Here’s Howdy Do: The Mischievous World of Gilbert and Sullivan” runs Dec. 31–Jan. 18 in the Studio Theatre in Milwaukee’s Broadway Theatre Center. Find details at www.skylightmusicthatre.org.