Savoyards revive local Gilbert &Sullivan tradition

Published 3:13 pm Friday, September 5, 2008

by Wendi Loomis

When I heard the Savoyards were going to be performing at the Tryon Fine Arts Center Gala on Saturday, Sept. 13, my first question was, &dquo;Who are the Savoyards?&dquo;

When I asked around town about this group, Nancy and Chuck Dunn, Dave Halliday, and Patti Peake were names that I kept hearing. So, I sat down with the four of them one afternoon to find out just what the buzz was about.

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So what exactly are the Savoyards doing for the TFAC Gala coming up?

Nancy: We&squo;re using our history to entertain. We&squo;re presenting the ambiance of the performances that we&squo;ve done.

Dave: Back when it finished.

Chuck: In 1997.

Dave: There was encouragement to carry it on, and at the time young people didn&squo;t really have jobs here so it just wasn&squo;t going to work. So the end result is that we&squo;ve had money left over which we wanted to donate. Am I right?

Chuck: That&squo;s right.

Patti: Right. That was sort of the beginning of this whole celebration ‐ having some sort of event to donate money to TFAC.

Nancy: At the end of each of the performances all the money from the productions went to area groups.

Chuck: Non-profits.

Nancy: Except the seed money to prepare the next show.

How long ago did the Savoyards get started?

Chuck: We moved here in 1991.

Nancy: Right, so we started in 1992.

Chuck: And the last one was in 1997.

So how many did you do, one each year?

Chuck: Yes, for a total of six.

How did you decide to do Gilbert & Sullivan musicals?

Nancy: Well they needed a fundraiser for Discovery House. That was a group that the community had gotten together to educate children in the arts. We had done a similar fundraiser in Evansville, Indiana. The one we used was &uot;Trial by Jury,&uot; set in a courtroom so the set was already there, even the seats for the men&squo;s chorus, who were the jury. We just had to come up with a few costumes. It was quite a bit smaller group than we eventually had. But we had a band with organ, bassoon, and cello.

Chuck: It was all sung with no speaking parts.

Nancy: That really was a true opera, all sung not spoken. Then we had this English friend Brian Daubney who came over. We had done this in various other settings.

Chuck: Two ‐ Greenwood, S.C. and Evansville, Ind.

Nancy: I rehearsed the chorus with the music and Brian came and put it together. &uot;Trial by Jury&uot; is quite short so we added a potpourri of various other Gilbert & Sullivan solos, duets, and trios. The community just absolutely adored it. They had box lunches at the courthouse lawn with a maypole.

It went over so well with the community Discovery House asked us to do it again and we moved to TFAC. Discovery House disbanded after the first year, so the proceeds went to other community organizations.

Dave: At that point we became an affiliate of the Tryon Fine Arts Center.

Nancy: We started in March with the principals, then added the chorus, and Kathleen Carson came to choreograph May 1. Then Brian would come over around May 15 to finish it up.

Patti: Before that he sent us the playbook with the basic sketch of blocking. So we had a sketch of it and he would come and put the polish on it and steer us in the right direction.

Nancy: But the whole thing just worked beautifully after the second year. Everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do. People were going to do the food and the decorations. We had a set group. You just hardly had to remind anyone what they had to do, and by the time Brian got here he just took it and ran with it.

So how many people were involved with it by the end of the second year?

Chuck: There was a cast and crew of 40-50.

Nancy: If you count the set crew probably even more than that.

Dave: One of the greatest accomplishments was Kathleen taking people who couldn&squo;t dance and making them look good.

Nancy: We cast the show musically. If you could sing you were in. People like Patti, Andy Millard, and Dave obviously had stage experience, but the chorus people just came right out of the kitchen. That was part of the charm.

Chuck: I will never forget the opening number in &uot;Iolanthe&uot; with the women&squo;s chorus coming on in their little pastel tennis shoes. And there was Helen Hilgare.

Dave: She was probably 4&squo;10&dquo;.

Chuck: At the time she must have been about 70. It&squo;s a memory I&squo;ll never forget.

Nancy: Even at the beginning, while there were younger people in the group, the median age was pretty high. Brian called it his geriatric group.

What kind of thing will we see at the gala?

Nancy: A potpourri basically from three shows &uot;Iolanthe,&uot; &uot;HMS Pinafore,&uot; and &uot;The Mikado.&uot;

Chuck: Did you name all six?

You mentioned &uot;Trial By Jury&uot; in addition to those three. What were the other two?

Chuck: &uot;Ruddigore&uot; and &uot;Patience.&uot;

Nancy: All four of us were in all six productions.

How many of your original members will be performing, or will you have to pull in some new blood?

Nancy: No new blood. I would think about 25-30 of the original group will be performing. But anybody performing (at the Tryon Fine Arts Center gala next Saturday) had been in the group.

What made you choose Gilbert & Sullivan?

Dave: It was a good vehicle.

Chuck: Since 1971 we worked with Brian.

Nancy: In Evansville.

Chuck: When we moved to Greenwood, we started another Savoyards group there.

Nancy: It just resonated with the audience.

Patti: They&squo;re charming pieces.

Dave: Spoofs.

Chuck: I&squo;m not sure we&squo;ll ever be seeing them again. I don&squo;t know who&squo;s going to be doing them.

Nancy: Normally Brian would take some of the lyrics and dialogue and make it current.

Dave: Add localisms.

Nancy: The town of Saluda might pop up or something that had been in the news.

Patti: That&squo;s a traditional treatment. Gilbert & Sullivan groups have always done that.

Nancy: The dialogue was timely when it was written.

Would you start up the company and do it again?

Nancy: Somebody else may come in and do it. I can only speak for myself and I think I speak for Charles. We&squo;re all kind of dispersing to various rest homes and extended care places. But this was such a magical experience and working with Brian that I don&squo;t think I could ever do it again with somebody else.

Patti: It would be very strange. It was my only experience working with Gilbert & Sullivan.

Dave: Me too. And I think Charles and Patti and Andy did all those patter songs and really made it work.

Nancy: Of course we&squo;re slightly prejudiced.

Patti: We had long rehearsal periods. When you work on something that long it just gets in every fiber of your being.

Nancy: A lot of credit had to go to Brian.

Chuck: Brian had it organized.

Nancy: He was experienced directing and knew the music very well. He would somehow with his personality just envelope everybody and make them feel part of it and do their best.

Dave: No matter their talent. It was an enjoyable experience in our lives.

Nancy: It was just like a family.

Dave: At the picnic after the last performance, Brian would create a synopsis that was about the show that was hysterical.

Nancy: A parody on the people that had been involved ‐ the &dquo;party song,&dquo; he called it.

Patti: That&squo;s right and it was usually the patter song. He would get everybody in it and funny incidents. He did such a great job.

Dave: Chuck, tell us how you remember those patter songs. I think you told me you get up early in the morning?

Chuck: Yeah.

Dave: I&squo;d try to do them at the edge of the bed at night before I go to sleep.

Chuck: The song from &uot;Iolanthe&uot; was the worst.

Nancy: And I&squo;d get in bed and be almost asleep and I&squo;d all of the sudden feel his foot tapping. I knew he was going over those words. It was terrible.

Chuck: 224 words in one song.

Nancy: Just as fast as you could spit them out.

What set Gilbert & Sullivan apart from the other groups like Tryon Little Theater?

Nancy: Tryon Little Theater finished their season and we went in after they finished. It was nip and tuck to get the sets up right between the end of May and beginning of June. We didn&squo;t have much time to fit the show in between Tryon Little Theater and the BBQ festival.

Patti: It seems like Gilbert & Sullivan groups are the only group that just does one thing. Right, you don&squo;t have an Andrew Lloyd Webber group.

Chuck: I think it&39;s a carry over from back in 1870-80 when Gilbert & Sullivan wrote these operettas because they used a constant cast. So every year when they did a new show you would see the same people in different roles.

Nancy: In our group the next season&squo;s show was fleshed out before Brian left town. You could look at the next show and see where Patti, Dave, or Liz Nordstrom would fit. That&squo;s the way they wrote; they had a permanent cast. Rarely would you wonder who to put into a role.

Dave: After four to six of them in a row you need a break.

Chuck: We did that in Evansville. In fact, we did two one year, a Benjamin Britten operetta with the same cast. The Evansville group did all 12-13 shows.

Nancy: Then started over. They went for 14-15 years. Brian came here to South Carolina in the spring and went to Evansville in the summer.

Dave: It couldn&squo;t have happened without Brian. He was the foremost Gilbert & Sullivan guy on the continent, and the most consummate musician I&squo;ve ever known.

Patti: Me, too.

Nancy: I love to accompany and watch a singer and breathe with them. But Brian would make me follow him. He is the one director I would follow rather than the singer. He&squo;s a gentle man. He was good with people.

What&squo;s it been like getting back together to put these pieces together?

Dave: We only met once.

Nancy: Right, we&squo;re depending on our experience. Dave went over his again today. There&squo;s certainly been an interest. One call to Roberta Kellerman about costumes and she was ready to roll. A few folks needed some arm twisting and a few just couldn&squo;t do it. Particularly the elder members have been pushing themselves to get back into it. You do sort of fall back into it, just like an old shoe.

Patti: Yep.

Nancy: Patti was one of the Three Little Maids and I called her and said, &dquo;Patti, do you have one more Three Little Maids in you?&dquo; She said yes, so I called the other two (Tena Greene Porter and Peggy Hunnicutt) and it was fine with them. Patti&squo;s putting together the dance that they did.

Patti: It&squo;s amazing how things you thought were forgotten will come back to you.

Nancy: Andy Millard has the longest and closest to a patter song and he&squo;s being asked to produce more than anyone else and he&squo;s certainly capable of doing that.

Catch the Savoyards in their one and only reprise performance at the Tryon Fine Arts Center Gala event on September 13 starting at 5:43 p.m. in the Farwell Garden. Make your reservations by calling 828-859-8322; the deadline for reservations is today,&bsp; Friday, September 5.