“The Grand Duke” is the final operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan but barely anyone knows it: The show hasn’t had a full professional U.K staging since its 1896 premiere. Riding to its rescue comes the plucky Finborough Theater. The company’s reputation for unearthing forgotten gems is unrivalled, but this piece has more lurches in tone than an entire season of “Glee.” A game but lame staging leads to the inescapable conclusion that the title should be filed under “justly neglected.”
No one looks to Gilbert and Sullivan’s cheery satires for searing insight into political or personal behavior. Yet their finest works, notably “The Mikado” and “The Pirates of Penzance,” use arrant contrivance to create a coherent vision through Sullivan’s alternately perky and plangent setting of Gilbert’s libretti. Here, however, audiences are asked to invest imagination and time in something not even half-baked.
Gilbert and Sullivan expert Richard Suart is ideally poised between blustery and beady as Grand Duke Rudolph of Pfennig-Halfpfennig who, via a “statutory duel” (don’t ask,) is unseated for one day by Ludwig (Stefan Bednarczyk), the leading player of an acting troupe who are clandestine revolutionaries who recognize each other by the mutual consumption of sausage rolls.
In the ensuing 24 hours covered by what passes for the plot, Ludwig utilizes the company’s costumes of “Troilus and Cressida” to return the court to ancient Greece and marries four times. Given that the troupe is managed by one Ernest Dummkopf (Philip Lee), it’s painfully clear that the story is really a dialogue-heavy excuse for the actors to assume comic attitudes, rather than provide a properly dramatic throughline.
Such shenanigans are further made problematic by a stage so cramped that even the opening with two principals, a five-member chorus, five chairs and two onstage keyboards represents a serious challenge. As the stage fills further, choreography is understandably reduced to bobbing up and down with a Victorian version of hand-jives.
Bednarczyck makes as light as he can of the lumpen exposition and holds everything together with considerable zest. Nicely unforced bass Martin Lamb graces the final scenes, but the most easeful and exact comic performance comes from Charlotte Page.
Her exquisitely judged Julia Jellicoe would give the late Madeline Kahn a run for her money. Elsewhere, however, the singing far outshines the acting, while Martin Milnes’ direction hits overkill in the opening scene and then climbs higher.
Diehard completists have already sold out the eight-perf run. Those who missed it need not weep.