By Tom Holmes
You don't often hear the composer/librettist team of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan mentioned in the same sentence with Oak Park's famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, but on Oct. 12 and 13 the three late geniuses will be brought together when the operetta Trial By Jury is staged at Unity Temple.
"I walked into Unity Temple years ago and the first thing that came to my mind was Trial by Jury," said Marty Swisher, who directs Unity Temple's music program as well as this operetta, "long before I even worked here."
The setting of Trial by Jury is a courtroom, and Unity Temple's entire worship space is amazingly suited to function as the operetta's stage. "You can walk in," explained Marty's husband Michael who will play the counsel for the plaintiff in the performance, "and believe that it's a courtroom." The judge will stand behind the large pulpit located front and center in the worship area, and the jury will be seated off to the side. The audience, in effect, will be participating in the play as the onlookers in the courtroom.
A website, The Guide to Musical Theatre, describes the musical comedy's plot as beginning with, "Angelina suing Edwin for breach of promise, claiming that he has broken his word to marry her. In his own defense, Edwin argues that it is unfair to punish him for loving one girl one day and, bored with her, loving another the next. However, the sight of this beautiful girl overcome by emotion and greatly distressed quickly captures the hearts of the 'impartial' jury."
The fun continues over the 40-minute one act play with the "impartial" judge and jury becoming increasingly "captured" by Angelina and Edwin's case deteriorating. The operetta concludes with a delightful surprise ending.
Marty calls the musical "hysterical and fun." She added that Gilbert and Sullivan can be silly, but they also have a serious side. They satirize the pretensions of class distinctions in an entertaining way; the silliness allows the audience to explore all the dimensions of who we really are.
She said that, for many, the production will bring back memories of high schools days when they either performed in or saw Gilbert and Sullivan operettas like The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance. Because the production is short, she added, it's a good opportunity for parents to introduce their children to musical theater.
And because the production is less than an hour long, she chose to give the audience their money's worth by preceding the operetta with Gilbert and Sullivan arias, duets and trios, sung by the 23 members of the professional cast. The singers will be accompanied by piano, string bass and timpani.
Marty was motivated to stage Trial by Jury at Unity Temple by three of the loves in her life, the first of which is her husband Michael. They fell in love while performing in a group called The Singing Hoosiers while they were students at Indiana University in the 1970s. Upon graduating, they moved to Hyde Park where Marty became director of the Chicago Children's Choir and Michael pursued a career in market research.
There they ran up against a problem many young professional couples face.
"Michael and I found that we were working all the time and not spending much time with each other," she recalled. "We decided we would audition for an operetta at the University of Chicago across the street from the Children's Choir. It happened to be with the Gilbert and Sullivan Company of Chicago, a production of The Gondoliers." They were cast opposite each other in the lead roles.
The Gilbert and Sullivan Company became a second love of the Swishers. Michael has sung in 38 of their shows. Marty has served as president of the company and is presently on the board of directors.
"We've lived in Oak Park for over 30 years," said Michael, "and we've never done a show here. We have friends who come down and see us, but what's fun for me is to actually be able to do a Gilbert and Sullivan show here where our community can see it."
Marty's third motivation is love of the congregation she has served as music director for the last seven years.
"Unity Temple hired me as a one-year interim choir director, but after I was there for only three months, they offered me the job of music director," she said. "I conducted the choir and arranged for music for the non-choir Sundays, but I just felt there was so much talent within the congregation. Why should I spend money hiring people from the outside when there was so much possibility from within?"
She has expanded that initial job description to include creating and directing a 12-member a cappella group called the Unity Temple Singers. She also manages WISE (Women Inspired by Song), directs a children's choir, started an intergenerational bell choir and oversees a kind of hootenanny each month called Rise Up Singing.
"I only want the best for them," she declared. "I want the best of them and want to bring the best to them."
The congregation has reciprocated. The choir has increased in size to 50 members. "Marty brings a passion and vision to her music ministry at Unity Temple that has not only transformed our music program but brings an extraordinary dimension to our worship experience," said Unity Temple's senior pastor, Alan Taylor. "She has this uncanny ability to shape our choir, many of whom are amateur singers — some of whom don't read music — and consistently create sacred moments in which the entire congregation is invited to 'go deep.'"
Her challenge has been paying for all these additional programs. "I've devoted the last seven years of my work here to nurturing the talent from within the congregation, but I've developed a program that has a lot of whistles and bells, so I have to raise money in order for it to continue and without burdening the congregation with a lot of fundraisers."
Knowing that might motivate many to attend one of the two shows scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 12 and 13. The largest portion of the sale of tickets, $30/adults and $15/children, will go to Unity Temple's music program. Most of the cast of 23 professional singers have volunteered their time and talent for a cause they believe in. Dick Tribble, longtime musical theater veteran, also volunteered his time and expertise as the production's assistant director. Hannah Voigt, organist at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church of Oak Park and a popular local piano instructor, is the musical accompanist.
The production is dedicated to Marty's mentor, the late David Currie, distinguished professor of law at the University of Chicago, who was a founding member and director of the Gilbert and Sullivan Company of Chicago, and who loved playing "the learn-ed judge" in Trial by Jury.