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Review: OSF's immersive staging of 'Yeomen' works wonderfully

In "Yeomen of the Guard," W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan do what they have always done best — take on the weighty topic of class and class structure by creating a seemingly innocuous and amusing operetta. In the case of "Yeomen," the plot evolves around land and money, an imposed marriage and the imprisonment of a man on charges of sorcery.

The score has long been considered among Sullivan's most intricate and ambitious, and it is a credit to Oregon Shakespeare Festival director Sean Graney and his musical director, Andra Velis Simon, that they have not only managed a beautiful and lively interpretation, but a fun and approachable one as well. OSF's production of "Yeomen" is a fresh, funny, and altogether delightful diversion — Graney has kept the entire piece down to a manageable hour and a half, and the show is intended to be accessible to all ages. 

Graney (who is something of a Gilbert and Sullivan expert, having previously adapted "Pirates of Penzance," "HMS Pinafore" and "The Mikado") likes to look at how he can deconstruct and reconstitute things in a piece he's working on so that the spirit and the fun of the original work remains, while also keeping the story unencumbered by unnecessary plot diversions. He does this with "Yeomen" to spectacular effect, setting the action smack dab in the middle of the American Wild West. There are interesting correlations between Victorian England and the American West — another West End luminary, Oscar Wilde, was a great fan of the New World, and drew much inspiration from his visits to California and Colorado in the late 1800s, a fact surely not lost on Graney.

Apparently not finding the adaptation sufficiently challenging, Graney's creative team pushes the envelope even further with a gutsy foray into audience-immersive staging, and it works wonderfully. A good chunk of the patrons are right on stage with the cast, immersed in the action, and are clearly having a hell of a good time. This critic, although seated more conventionally, felt as though he was at an intimate country music show — a kind of high-concept hayride where the hilarity and hot musical numbers kept on coming.

The audience is brought to heel at the opening of the show with renditions of "Folsom City Blues" and "Don't Bring Me Down" before being drawn into the G&S action. The music is fabulously handled; actors play everything from guitars and spoons to washboards and saws. There is an electric accordion and banjos aplenty.

Tony Heald, an OSF veteran, plays Deputy Dick Chumlee, replete with handlebar mustache, decked out like a steampunk ringmaster. K.T. Vogt, as Warden Caruthers, knocks it out of the park; she is a zaftig hurricane, all star-spangled awesomeness, bosom and Dolly Parton hair. Jeremy R. Johnson plays the convicted "sorcerer" Fairfax with the strut and style of a bantam hen. He pushes back against those who done him wrong with a belligerent braggadocio and triumphs in the end.

Michael Sharon is compelling as the classic Gilbert and Sullivan villain: clad in chaps and muttonchops, his Shadbolt the Jailor is a rock-and-roll scoundrel for the ages — part Lord High Executioner, part Steve Perry. Leah Anderson and Kate Hurster, as the traveling Point Sisters, are both skilled triple-threats, and their relationship arc is a highlight of the production. Joseph Anthony Foronda is provocative as the scheming Major Meryll.

The standout of the show was Britney Simpson as Phoebe Meryll/Krazy Kate. Simpson is an excellent comedic actor, with great timing and a strong capacity for tapping into the madness of this particular mob. Her (ad-libbed?) line while riffing deep in character, alluding to the symptoms of a stroke, was the funniest of the night ("Do I smell toast?"). Much of the audience may have missed it, but that sort of nuanced humor couched in broad comedy is a big part of the Gilbert and Sullivan zeitgeist. Simpson is a credit to this cast of screwy misfits. 

All in all, "Yeomen of the Guard" is a roaring good time. If you're bored with theater as usual, see this show. You'll be very glad you did. 

—Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.