Making the most of it while "Living in a Topsy Turvy World"

Published March 18, 2021

Zoom rehearsal for "Topsy Turvy".

We’re less than two weeks from the opening of Theatre and Dance’s (THD) spring 2021 virtual season! The first production of the semester is Living in a Topsy Turvy World: The Theatre of Gilbert and Sullivan, guest directed by Gary John La Rosa, with music direction by associate professor and director of music theatre Nathan R. Matthews.

Topsy Turvy includes scenes from four well-known Gilbert and Sullivan productions from their twenty-five year collaboration, including H.M.S. Pinafore, Princess Ida, The Gondoliers, and Iolanthe, some of the first ever musicals to be staged using electricity in London in 1881. The show is double cast with a total of thirty students, Including the skilled technical theatre crew.

“The title is based on a device Gilbert and Sullivan used, which was basically turning the world upside down to parody and socially comment on topical issues of the day,” explained Gary John La Rosa. “To take events and completely invert them to dramatic or comic effect. They created a new theatrical form from elements of melodrama and extravaganza. The comic operetta didn't exist before then.”

Zoom still from "Princess Ida".

Graduating senior Nathan Roberts, who previously appeared as Nathan Detroit in THD’s live production of Guys and Dolls in fall 2019, as well as another operetta The Threepenny Opera, appears in scenes from H.M.S. Pinafore and The Gondoliers, as the Captain and Don Alhambra, respectively.

Roberts credits guest director La Rosa with helping to make the virtual version of the show feel as much like a live stage production as possible. “Working with the director is what makes it feel like theatre again,” Roberts said. “Gary John is very precise. He likes to talk about everything that’s going on, and pushes you to the next level. We’ve really been deprived of working with a director lately (due to Covid), so it was just really exciting to have someone asking these questions about roles again and about making a show come together.”

Cast member Nathan Roberts.

Nathan Roberts

 “It’s a very talented group of people,” said La Rosa. “Many beautiful voices and a big cross section of experience, because you’ve got freshmen seniors, and everybody's working together and very supportive. We were lucky to get them excited and interested in this material, and then (we) fully fleshed it out.”

The production took two months to put together, beginning on the first day of spring 2021 classes. The early rehearsal process focused on the music and scene analysis. “We had a general meeting, and then it was immersion in the music,” La Rosa said. “We had to get that started immediately because it's vocally challenging music and it would be hard to rehearse further until we had that under our belt.”

When rehearsals began in week three, part of the challenge was simply logistical. “We would sometimes have three rehearsals happening simultaneously on Zoom. In one breakout room would be faculty accompanist Alison (D’Amato), the assistant musical director, coaching students, and in another breakout room (clinical assistant professor Kathleen) Golde would be doing (British) dialect work, and then Nathan Matthews and I would be in the initial room,” said La Rosa.

Gary John La Rosa headshot.

Gary John La Rosa

 “We're now reaching the end of our meetings and rehearsals period. The remaining two weeks will be to (make final improvements) and film the production. Then we are assembling the piece, so that it can stream beginning March 26th.”

With the use of green screens and background imagery the cast is able to help transport its online audiences to the varied worlds the characters inhabit. Though performing remotely, cast members will use the whole of their physicality, as opposed to acting while seated. Roberts praised La Rosa’s approach towards making the show more interesting within the inherent challenges of streaming. “I was really glad about that. I didn’t want it to feel like a rehearsal reading. Even with the green screen it feels more like being on a stage,” Roberts said.

Zoom rehearsal with the directors.

Zoom rehearsal with the directors

“It was really important to try to give some uniformity to the piece,” said La Rosa. “One of the ways was to utilize virtual backgrounds or images that would speak to the piece itself and then unify each cast by having the same virtual background. One scene takes place at a castle, and another outdoors in a valley with a stream. Another takes place in Venice, and of course, one takes place on the deck of the H.M.S. Pinafore. Ultimately I think it really helps to give a visual sense to the piece.”

Wardrobe was also given time and consideration. “We created a list of all the characters and what I thought would potentially work from people's personal wardrobe. Then we spent a whole work session with students literally pulling things out (of the closet) to match that (list of ideas) and each other. It was very simple, but effective.”

This is La Rosa’s fourth production as guest director with THD, in collaboration with music theatre director Nathan Matthews. La Rosa’s previous directions were The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Cabaret, and American Idiot. A UCLA alumnus, he has staged well over 300 productions nationally.

Upon graduation this May with a Music Theatre BFA, Roberts is planning to move to New York City to pursue a theatre career. Given the seeming progress of vaccinations, and with hope for the gradual easing of restrictions on live performance, Roberts timing may be perfect for Manhattan stage opportunities.

“It's really important for students to know the history of musical theatre and the predecessor was Sir Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert, and their English comic opera,” La Rosa enthused. “All of the early shows in American musical theatre like ‘Showboat’ (and others) are their descendants. Contemporary musicals, classic plays, operetta… all these unique and diverse styles will inform students’ work in the future.”

Performances of Living in a Topsy Turvy World: The Theatre of Gilbert and Sullivan take place online March 26 – 27, 2021 at 7:30pm, and March 28 at 2pm and 7:30pm. Advance tickets can be purchased at: Prices are $6 for adults, $4 for students and seniors, and $10 for groups.