Love Potion #9
by Philip Campbell
Even by Gilbert & Sullivan standards, their third collaboration The Sorcerer has an improbable and contrived plot. Better to overlook the hasty dénouement and some of the creakier jokes. Concentrate on Sullivan's melodious score, Gilbert's droll tongue-twisters and barbed social satire, and just give in to the cheering silliness of it all. Lamplighters Music Theatre manages to do just that with their new "jewel box" production, which opened last week at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. It takes pride of place in the cherished Bay Area troupe's 60th anniversary season.
Going with a semi-staged approach proves a smart decision by director Jane Erwin Hammett. Those tiresome little holes in the storyline, some of the snarkier humor, and challenges in pacing are all diminished by focusing on the author's (and the company's) strengths. The justly admired Lamplighters Orchestra is right up there onstage, gamely joining in the action and replacing the customary old-fashioned sets with a lively human backdrop that adds impact to Melissa Wortman's beautifully detailed and attractive costumes.
The only downside is the replacement of resident music director Baker Peeples on the podium by a slightly less persuasive James Campbell. The ordinarily robust and buoyant strings sounded a little thin on opening night, and there were some occasional gaffes from other members of the orchestra. It was still nothing much to fuss about, and Maestro Peeples was busy elsewhere in his handsome costume as the befuddled Dr. Daly, Vicar of Ploverleigh.
The story is sort of a Gilbertian take on Donizetti's The Elixir of Love. There is a love potion and some pretty arias and duets, rollicking choruses and funny patter songs, but beyond that the sardonic wit of the librettist diverts and goes more than a little wacky when John Wellington Wells, of J.W. Wells & Co., Family Sorcerers, is introduced.
The magician-charlatan is called in to dope the tea at a village gathering with the Victorian equivalent of a Roofie. Merriment predictably ensues, but there is a dark side, and what started as an egalitarian solution to prejudiced class distinctions has some unexpected and unpleasant results.
Get it? Got it? Good! I won't try to describe further. Sorting out the mess and making some dramatic sense of it is in the capable hands of the director, and even if Hammett can't make it wholly convincing, at least she guides us to the semi-comprehensible finale, with some very funny stage business and performances along the way.
Hammett has tacked a rather gratuitous mimed Prologue onto this production (something about a group of provincial actors getting ready backstage for a performance of The Sorcerer) that is only a mildly amusing diversion and distracts the audience during the Overture. She settles in and gets back to business with some of the best choreography and crowd control of the season for the rest of the show. A simple ramp running from a bare backstage platform allows for some seamless entrances and exits, and gives added punch to the stage picture overall. The curtain-like screen at the rear showcases the efficient projections and lighting design by Robert Ted Anderson. When shadows of the spirits were displayed in the incantation scene, the delighted audience broke into applause at this clever economy of means.
The cast could hardly be bettered. As the title character, Chris Uzelac adds to his growing repertoire with another naturally amusing and well-sung portrayal. He may be a little more youthful than might be expected, but he is convincing, and even manages to drop his aitches with a thoroughly credible rustic accent. The Sir Marmaduke of Robby Stafford and the Lady Sangazure of Megan Stetson (in her Lamplighters debut) play off each other beautifully. Their every encounter is hilarious, and they both sing with eloquence as well.
The requisite couple of young lovers is also essayed with vocal ease by Robert Vann (a regular Lamplighters go-to tenor) and Linda Thompson Roush as Aline, Lady Sangazure's daughter. Her character holds out from taking the potion until love gets the best of her, and the resulting match with the Vicar proves a hoot. Baker Peeples is actually rather sweet and endearing as Dr. Daly, so their pairing is less odious than might be expected. In smaller roles, Kelly Powers as Mrs. Partlet, a pew opener, and Rose Frazier as Constance, her daughter (a pew opener's daughter?) make a happy meal of their parts, and both sing especially well.
There is a lot to be said for taking the jewels out of the box and displaying them in a relatively spare setting. The historically strong production values of the Lamplighters only glow with added luster.
The Sorcerer continues its run at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, Sat., March 23, 8 p.m., and Sun., March 24, 2 p.m. Go to: www.lamplighters.org.