Hail, hail, the gang's all here!
by Philip Campbell
Lamplighters Music Theatre, San Francisco and the Bay Area's beloved Gilbert & Sullivan troupe, opened their 62nd season last week with a predictably entertaining and musically substantial production of The Pirates of Penzance, always a surefire crowd-pleaser.
We say predictably because quality and tradition embody the mission of the beloved company, and every revival of an operetta in the Savoyard's extensive canon is fashioned with meticulous attention to detail and genuine affection for the material. We call Pirates surefire because it contains some of the best music and most memorable tunes ever penned by Arthur Sullivan, enlivening the witty lyrics and relatively sensible libretto by William S. Gilbert. The score includes all of the trademark tongue-twisting patter songs, stirring anthems and pretty ballads that have made the partnership endure for more than a century, and the plot, while preposterous, is still filled with just enough biting social satire and sarcasm to make even the wacky and improbable final denouement marginally believable.
The story of a band of "poor wandering ones" (sort of a grown-up version of J.M. Barrie's lost boys) and their inept and hilarious attempts at piracy includes a distaff chorus of pretty and strong-willed maidens whom they attempt to highjack and marry (of course). The central characters, including the Pirate King; Frederic, the pirate apprentice; Mabel, one of the numerous daughters of Major-General Stanley; and Ruth, pirate maid-of-all-work, and the one who got Frederic into the whole mess to begin with, invigorate a twisted plot that seems the very essence of the G&S franchise. The suitably old-fashioned sets of Peter Crompton, and the sumptuous costumes, executed in this production by Miriam Lewis and originally designed by Melissa Wortman, remain a visual delight. Joey Postil's lighting design is unfussy and properly bright.
The moment veteran Music Director/Conductor Baker Peeples enters the pit, we can rest assured that the crack orchestra will fill the hall with a rich and full-bodied sound. His tempi can be a bit slow at times, but there is so much loving attention to detail we can excuse any sense of dawdling and simply revel in the beauty of Sullivan's beautiful melodies. The chorus of Pirates, Police and General Stanley's daughters blends with the richness of the Lamplighters Orchestra to make every big moment in the score sparkle and remind us of the strength of the company's talent pool.
As the Pirate King, Charles Martin (Ben Brady is his alternate) looks and sounds suitably sardonic. He is at home in the part, and if he doesn't become the center of attention, it is probably because of the excellence of his co-stars.
The Major-General of F. Lawrence Ewing is a scene-stealer whenever he appears, and his death-defying ease with the patter song of all G&S patter songs, "I am the very model of a modern Major-General" (aided in comprehension by the unobtrusive supertitles), remains peerless.
Two performers, new to the Lamplighters, fill the juvenile leads with aplomb. As Frederic, Samuel Faustine (alternate Robert Vann) is believable and likeable as the young man conflicted as a "slave to duty" by his allegiance to his criminal colleagues and to lawful society. Faustine's pleasant tenor voice is always audible and well-enunciated.
As his beloved Mabel, debutante Kaia Richards (alternate Elena Galvan) is a real find. Pretty as a picture, with just enough womanly wisdom to overcome the galumphing males, she pairs beautifully in the duets and displays a perfect coloratura that accomplishes all the high notes and rides effortlessly over the full orchestra and chorus.
Deborah Rosengaus (alternate Sonia Gariaeff) is way too young and attractive to play the middle-aged and "plain" Ruth, but she becomes more believable as the evening progresses because of her expert comic timing and full-throated vocalism. I found myself zeroing in on her presence at every opportunity.
The only minor weakness of the production is the somewhat underpowered Sergeant of Police of Steve Goodman (alternate Robby Stafford), but his acting is good enough, and the supporting chorus of police is not only characterful, but also well-sung enough to compensate.
When the strains of "With cat-like tread" filled the auditorium in the second act (you may recognize it as "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here"), the opening-night audience chuckled and hummed along with real appreciation. That's what Gilbert and Sullivan and the tradition of the Lamplighters are all about.
Lamplighters Music Theatre's The Pirates of Penzance continues in Mountain View, San Francisco, and Livermore, through August 24. Schedule and info: lamplighters.org.