54 Below Review: A Delightful Evening Of Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged

It’s 2017 and the world of classical music is obsessed with our revered classical, romantic and baroque works relevant to today’s millennials.

And then there’s Gilbert and Sullivan.

It’s not opera. It’s not musical theater. And aside from a production of “Pirates of Penzance” once a decade, few non-musically educated people are wary of the cheeky, British duo.

On June 21 at 54 Below, Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged gave us British operetta’s greatest hits in an up-to-date, hipster fashion.

Calling us to attention with a stately chorale of “Hail, Poetry” sung from the restaurant floor, singer, accordionist and banjoist Katharine Carson-Groner pointed out that the concert wasn’t so out of the norm; Gilbert and Sullivan were perhaps the first pop songwriters as their jolly tunes lit the air of smoky pubs in days of yore.

The group of 8 musicians, all accompanying themselves and each other on a variety of instruments (harmonica, accordion and SAW included) arranged a rollicking evening of tunes, that had we otherwise known might have been folk tunes written for an Irish band.

The hit list featuring pieces from “The Mikado,” “HMS Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance,” while fresh with their band’s unique orchestration, retained the composer’s plumb vocal harmonies through various trios, quartets and ensemble numbers, sung in a loose, intimate fashion, treading only very lightly into the legit, operetta style.

Careful not to leave out the virtuosic G and S patter song, the group brought us what was the highlight of the set, a gender-bent “When I Was a Lass” by Lauren Vogel. Taking a few moments to wail on her musical theater belt, Vogel took the uptempo up a few notches a third of the way through…and then AGAIN, until by the end she sprinted through the lyrics, speaking fast enough to break the sound barrier. Whether her words were intelligible or not remains a mystery, but the feat was impressive regardless.

Music director Matt Kahler’s convincing British enunciation with Doug Pawlik’s soothing tenor in “Sighing Softly” helped wind us down before picking us back up for the group’s big finish, “Modern Major General”.

The group’s American Folk, Irish Folk and sometimes Klezmer stylings bamboozled our ears, successfully making this effort to revive 19th-century work into relevant entertainment for today’s YouTube culture. It just might be the perfect way to dip your opera-phobic friend’s toes into the world of opera…

The performers included Douglas Pawlik on Clarinet and Guitar, Dana Omar playing guitar, flute, ukulele, and musical saw, and finally Katharine Carson-Groner on accordion and banjo. We also got to hear Lauren Vogel performing on violin and banjo, Daniel Goodman on mandolin, Victoria Blade on ukulele, and Erik Schroeder on guitar.

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About the Author

James Monroe Števko
Born in Houston, James began studying music at an early age, but it wasn't until college that he first saw ballet. After pursuing music education, he decided instead to earn his BFA in Theatre from NIU while on scholarship. He was quickly offered a traineeship with Milwaukee Ballet where he performed in Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker. Since then, James has performed with Radio City Music, The Metropolitan Opera in Un Ballo in Maschera, as Enoch Jr. in Carousel with the Houston Grand Opera, the Muny in St. Louis in The King and I, 7 productions with The Lyric Opera of Chicago, Cats at the Paramount Theatre, and RPM Productions. He has also performed alongside Katy Perry at the Met gala. He also loves to travel and blogs about his adventures.

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