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SIREN'S SONG: Indre Viskontas' Heart's Desire turns on the charm for Mark Blattel's Hassan in 'The Rose of Persia.'

Sultans Of Sing

Lyric Theatre's 'The Rose of Persia' is a happily anachronistic affair

By Ben Marks

FOR A NUMBER of years now, I have been making an annual pilgrimage to the Montgomery Theater to attend Gilbert & Sullivan operas produced by Lyric Theatre. The reliably corny, always endearing musical comedies that unfold there are filled with fast-talking major generals, preposterous pirates and wandering minstrels with silly names like Nanki-Poo. I don't go looking for profound parallels to our contemporary culture or expecting anything more from this late-19th-century British genre than some marvelous singing and live orchestra accompaniment, colorful costumes, shoestring-budget sets and a fair amount of terrible puns mixed with clever wordplay. The singers and musicians perform without the benefit of microphones, which is perfectly suited to the Montgomery's cozy confines, creating what must be a fairly close approximation of a Gilbert & Sullivan opera at London's legendary Savoy.

This weekend, the Lyric presents the last four performances of composer Arthur Sullivan's final opera, The Rose of Persia, whose lyrics and dialogue were written by Basil Hood after Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert acrimoniously parted company. Hood had a good ear for Gilbert's sense of language, and there are moments during The Rose of Persia when he out-Gilberts Gilbert himself. Like many G&S operas, The Rose of Persia is your basic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girls, boy-gets-girl-back-again and then-everyone-lives-happily-ever-after story. Set in a cartoony, mythical Persia, the tale begins in the home of a wealthy man named Hassan (the always marvelous Mark Blattel), who would rather give away his wealth to the street people he knows are trying to scheme him than to rub shoulders with his economic peers, who are no more scrupulous despite their fortunate circumstances. The first of his 25 wives, a humorless nag ironically named Dancing Sunbeam (Jessica Leash), wants Hassan's money for herself, as does a self-serving priest named Abdallah (Paul Melville). Hassan, to put it succinctly, would rather get high.

Into this mix arrives a trio of slave girls and the sultan's wife, Rose-in-Bloom (Alexandra Kendall), who has escaped the comfortable drudgery of her husband's palace, under penalty of death if she's caught, for a bit of adventure. A storyteller named Yussuf (Dan Galpin) falls for one of the slave girls, Heart's Desire (Indre Viskontas), but their courtship is interrupted by the sultan (Michael Cuddy) and his entourage, all of whom are disguised as whirling dervishes. By now, Hassan is so stoned that he believes himself to be the sultan, which the sultan thinks is so amusing that he commands his minions to treat Hassan as sultan when the poor wretch awakes from his stupor.

Get the idea? The Rose of Persia is about as fusty and old-school an evening of theater as one can possible imagine, or hope, which is precisely its charm. Yes, there are several exceptional vocal performances (Kendall does a fine job with a piece that was written to give the original Sultana a chance to show off her pipes); there's a beefy, comedic executioner (Jim Martin) who is forever threatening to lop off someone's head with his enormous prop scimitar; and the song late in the second act about Old Mother Hubbard, Little Miss Muffet, the Cat and the Fiddle and other "horribly harrowing" stories is a classic. But The Rose of Persia, like most Lyric's productions, is mostly a chance to get lost in time for a bit, to enjoy an anachronistic art form that we are fortunate to have in our midst.

  THE ROSE OF PERSIA, a Lyric Theatre production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm at the Montgomery Theater, 291 S. Market St., San Jose. Tickets are $12–$28. (408.986.1455)

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