Saturday October 13, 2012

KEENE, N.H.

Yeomen of the Guard -- The latest release in the VAI DVD series of vintage television productions of musicals is Gilbert & Sullivan’s "The Yeomen of the Guard." It is the team’s work that is closest to opera, it does not involve topsy-turvy situations, and the characters are fairly believable.

Part of the Max Leibman Presents series, this 1957 "Yeomen" was allowed 80 minutes of running time, the rest dedicated to commercials and station breaks, and therefore is by no means complete. (The missing commercials can be seen as an extra.) But it does keep quite a bit of the dialogue and score (a full performance would run a bit over two hours) and serves as a good introduction to the complete work.

A caveat at this point. The original telecast was in color; only a black-and-white copy was found. Also, the picture is a bit more wobbly than are other VAI discs in this series. But there is no other (as far as I can tell) decent video of "Yeomen" available to us, so this one is a valuable addition to the history of television and to G&S productions.

A synopsis of the plot would take up too much space here; but I want to comment that the so-called Happy Ending is quite different from those in the other G&S plays: two characters wind up engaged to the very people they hate and the main comic character (like Bunthorne in "Patience") gets what he deserves.

Alfred Drake makes a very good if not overly subtle Jack Point the jester, while popular singer Bill Hayes looks and sounds good as the not very admirable Colonel Fairfax. Barbara Cook has an operatic voice that suits her role as Elsie, but Celeste Holm sounds too Broadway-ish for the young Phoebe.

The show begins with some background information about the Tower of London, which might interest the audience. But a second introduction by Jack Point is utterly superfluous and the time could have been better spent with a stanza from at least one song that had been removed.

Desert Song -- Sigmund Romberg’s "The Desert Song" (1926) ran for 471 performances and was adapted on film in 1929, 1943 (the Nazis are the villains here) and in color in 1953. In 1955, it was shown on television as part of the Max Liebman Presents series; and that abridged version is now part of the invaluable series of DVDs of vintage television shows from VAI.

This 75-minute black-and-white version drops two comic characters and their songs, but keeps what is left intact (although I cannot vouch for the dialogue). Those familiar with "The Mark of Zorro," "The Scarlet Pimpernel," and even Superman will spot the creaky plot in which a hero poses as a coward. Here Pierre (Nelson Eddy), the son of a French General (Otto Kruger), falls for the beautiful Margot (Gale Sherwood). Disguised as the bane of the French, the Red Shadow, Pierre kidnaps her; and what there is of a creaky plot develops along very predictable lines.

But the essence of "The Desert Song" consists of "One Alone," "Romance," the title song, and some lesser but pleasing numbers. There is a good deal of dance, a bit too much, considering how much plot had to be cut; but Bambi Lynn and Rod Alexander justify the time devoted to the ballet.

Eddy is not complimented by close-ups, but his baritone is still pleasant. Sherwood is described as his post-MacDonald partner. I find her easier to take than her predecessor. It is good to see the old opera buffa basso Salvatore Baccaloni as a Moroccan bigwig, but it is not easy to understand what he is saying.

The picture is a kinescope (a camera filming a television screen) and the sound is obviously not up to today’s standards. But it is such fun and a must for lovers of the old romantic times when Romberg gave the people what they wanted.

Note: Some of the other televised musicals in this series are "Naughty Marietta," "Kiss Me Kate," "Dearest Enemy," "A Connecticut Yankee" and the Groucho Marx "The Mikado."

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.