Arts & Culture » Theater

Immersive G&S experience

by Philip Campbell

Two audience members (left) as Fairies, with Alexandra Sessler (right) as Phyllis (A Shepherdess) in the "Iolanthe Singalong" costume contest in Taube Atrium Theater. Photo: Joe Giammarco
Two audience members (left) as Fairies, with Alexandra Sessler (right) as Phyllis (A Shepherdess) in the "Iolanthe Singalong" costume contest in Taube Atrium Theater. Photo: Joe Giammarco  

Lamplighters Music Theatre, celebrated San Francisco-based curators of the fantastic canon of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, has also been part of the thriving Bay Area sing-along scene for years. The Victorian-era operettas pose a challenge for 21st-century participants, but still create a remarkably relevant topsy-turvy world, full of subversive humor and catchy tunes. In the days of #MeToo, marriage inequality and political gridlock, the sing-alongs offer a chance to get silly in public with plenty of material for "A Song to Sing, O!"

Not exactly knowing what to expect, I decided to surrender to my not-so-secret lifelong affection for G&S recently, when the Lamplighters started a three-city run of "Iolanthe Singalong." I wouldn't dress up (costumes encouraged, not required) or even sing aloud (you're welcome), but they finally made me an offer I couldn't refuse.

Have you ever passed by the Castro Theatre as a line of costumed patrons wait for "Sound of Music Sing-Along" or a Disney musical? All those Ariels, Marias and Trapp kids, not to mention a group dressed as the "hills" (you know, they're alive with the sound of music) can arouse some mixed response, like, "I wouldn't be caught dead there," or, "Are they really having as much fun as it looks?"

Well, "In for a penny, in for a pound," goes a line from "Iolanthe," so I decided to join the immersive Lamplighters experience for an afternoon in the intimate (299-seat) Taube Atrium Theater, San Francisco. It validated my inner fanboy tendencies and offered an endearing introduction to other hardcore members of the Savoy faithful.

The lilt of Arthur Sullivan's beautiful melodies and the wit of W.S. Gilbert's lyrics turn out to be surprisingly easy to sight-read - at least, with the aid of an orchestra and the easily visible supertitles. Costumed principals from the seasoned troupe and Music Director Baker Peeples, conducting the marvelous Lamplighters Orchestra, fleshed out a thoroughly satisfying performance.

The G&S "Big Three" may consist of "H.M.S. Pinafore," "The Pirates of Penzance" and "The Mikado," but I have always favored "Iolanthe." The tale of a young man fairy to the waist, but with legs that are mortal, never ceases to delight. Aside from the countless comic possibilities allowed by the contrivances of the plot, the music is especially rich, and the skewering of societal ignorance, the legal profession and snobbish class distinction is startlingly timeless.

Longtime favorites from the Lamplighters crew appeared with some newish members in central roles. They also voiced the spoken dialogue, though at a few key points eager audience members couldn't resist stepping on their lines.

As Queen of the Fairies, Cary Ann Rosko simply cracks me up. Her timing and facial expressions are superb, and she invests every role with heartwarming vulnerability.

Another veteran who can't put a foot wrong is Rick Williams. His pompous but lovable Lord Chancellor, mortal father to the aforementioned young man Strephon, is definitive. Lifting his robes to accomplish a jig, or flawlessly enunciating a patter song (the audience joined in!), he owns the part with cunning ease.

In the title role of Iolanthe, fairy mother to Strephon, exiled for her unforgivable sin, Michele Schroeder was dreamily appealing. Her lovely voice and presence fit the character well, and she managed to be heard above the many women (and men, too) who confidently joined along.

As young lovers Strephon and Phyllis, Samuel Rabinowitz reminded me of his recent success in "The Gondoliers," and Alexandra Sessler recalled her previous portrayal of the Arcadian Shepherdess & Ward in Chancery. They make a darling pair, with all the vocal talent required to add some dimension.

William H. Neil was amusing as Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards. His deadpan delivery is a perfect fit for the dry, laugh-out-loud British humor of the character.

Michael Desnoyers was a droll Lord Tolliver, and Robby Stafford offered a gleefully contrasting Lord Mountararat (love those G&S names). Rose Frazier, Autumn Allee and Brenna MacIlvaine made a charming trio of Fairies. They had the most competition for costuming from the audience and a few orchestral musicians wearing pretty floral headdresses. They took it gracefully in stride.

Before the performance I indulged in some blatant people-watching to see just what I was getting myself into. Most memorable was the family group of cute young dad with equally cute six-year-old kid on his knee. His father was beside him, and an even older family friend sat behind. I thought young dad had probably been dragged along with his child another innocent victim. Guess who ended up singing loudest, with the happiest gusto?

When a young man in formal wear planted himself at the top of the tiered seating with a score and baton in hand, I knew I was among friends. Baker Peeples later let him come down to lead a musical number in Act II.

I've gone from "Never in a million years" to, "Don't knock it till you've tried it."

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