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Two Days in Court
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-04-29

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Playwrights: Stephen Vincent Benet; Gilbert & Sullivan

At: City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: www.citylit.org; $32 ( plus service charge ). Runs through: May 26

City Lit is closing its 39th ( ! ) season with a double bill that's thoroughly enjoyable if not earth-shaking: an all-American classic one-act play and an all-British one-act comic operetta, collectively titled Two Days in Court. The play, Stephen Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster, once was ubiquitous in community and school theatricals, while the 1875 operetta, Trial by Jury, was the first of Gilbert & Sullivan's witty Savoy operas. Director Terry McCabe's 17 players double in both pieces, but are cast primarily for their musical abilities, so Trial by Jury takes pride of place with the Benet work serving as the curtain-raiser ( which was what Trial by Jury was originally; the shorter, lesser work in a double bill ).

Daniel Webster ( 1782-1852 ), an Early American Great Man, was Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State and Presidential candidate representing New Hampshire first and later Massachusetts. He was known in his lifetime—and still is heralded—as one of America's greatest orators, a staunch supporter of the Constitution and a strong Federal government. Benet's 1938 play pits Webster ( Bill Chamberlain ) against the Devil ( Lee Wichman ), arguing before a jury of the damned to win back the soul of a young man ( Nate Strain ) and Webster political follower who is celebrating his marriage to Mary ( Laura Resinger ). Webster wins by espousing the glories of being American and free.

Trial by Jury is a pithy, wonderfully tuneful send-up of the British justice system and moral hypocrisy, in which a young man ( Jimmy Hogan ) is tried for breach of promise of marriage to beauteous Angelina ( Sarah Beth Tanner ). Thing is, the Learned Judge ( Kingsley Day ) rose to the top by wooing the "elderly, ugly daughter" of a wealthy attorney, and then throwing her over when his career was established. It's deliciously silly stuff. Who but Gilbert would rhyme "arena . . . subpoena . . . Angelina?" And who but Sullivan could turn out melodies in the service of comedy that rival his contemporary, Giuseppe Verdi?

The stage becomes crowded very quickly with 17 performers, but McCabe and choreographer Todd Rhoades provide brisk pacing and appealing dances; nothing fancy, but appropriate for the traditional fiddle tunes of The Devil and Daniel Webster and the courtroom merriment of Trial by Jury. Sullivan's music is lively, too, as it must be, under music director Daniel Robinson and accompanist ( piano ) James Osorio. The 12-person chorus blends well and the principals have clear, strong voices although the Judge's vocal range isn't ideal for Day. He's a master Gilbert & Sullivan interpreter, but some musical value and volume is lost although his words are crystal-clear ( Gilbert's ghost can rest easy ).

This sunny double bill is a good theatrical transition into spring!


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