Celebrating 150 Years of Gilbert and Sullivan! A Sesquicentennial Soiree of Scenes
Lamplighters Music Theatre
W.S. Gilbert (Lyrics); Arthur Sullivan (Music)
With a triumphant heralding of opening notes emerging from an orchestra pit that has been empty during two years of COVID, Lamplighters Music Theatre returns with glorious flair just in time to celebrate several significant anniversaries: the 70th of the company itself, the 50th of its orchestra, and the 150th of the globally renown pair whose operettas Lamplighters continues to ensure are never forgotten by a grateful and loyal Bay Area audience. Surrounded by multi-layered, scenic elements that include a throne, a ship’s steering wheel, a casket, and a flowered wedding canopy – all reminders of favorite G&S stories – a cast of fifteen principals enter as costumed, Victorian actors. Relying on onstage, wardrobe trunks full of hats, props, and capes, the full cast is never to leave the stage again in the next eighty minutes until they have traversed in multiple roles through at least one number from each of the fourteen Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, presented in order from 1871’s Thespis to 1896’s Grand Duke. The result is a fabulous whirlwind of comedy, melodrama, and surprisingly darker moments; of arias, duets, trios and increasingly larger groupings including resounding, full-ensemble pieces; and of course of lyrics that tease and rattle the brain with their speed, alliteration, and hilarious rhyming. Celebrating 150 Years of Gilbert and Sullivan! A Sesquicentennial Soiree of Scenes is a perfect invitation for us all to return after a two-year hibernation to a live performance and to aid in honoring both this creative pair and the company who keeps them very much alive in the Bay Area, Lamplighters Music Theatre.
During its long history, never have so many principals graced at the same time the Lamplighters’ stage, with actors who are used to singing only primary roles also needing to learn numbers usually memorized by their surrounding choruses. What is particularly incredible is that the idea of this celebration only emerged in early January, meaning a quickly assembled cast had to learn a lot of music under the astute music direction of David Drummond (who also conducts the excellent, twenty-two-piece orchestra). Likewise, a creative team under the stage direction of Nicolas Aliaga Garcia in lightning speed produced a captivating and often comic scenic design (Mr. Garcia with Phil Lowery) lit with shadows and spots galore by Brittany Mellerson on a cast costumed in period grandeur as designed by a group effort, noted in the program as “Team Lamplighters.” Truly this celebratory party of songs and scenes is the result of a community of artists who are dedicated to the mission of a company that is itself a San Francisco tradition and treasure.
The G&S trademark of witty, speedy lyrics bounce joyfully through the air as the first mini-scene’s quartet (Sonia Gariaeff, Aléxa Anderson, Charles Martin, Carmello Tringali) sings “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain” from G&S’s first and today little-known operetta Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old. Immediately, the four give prelude of the universally excellent voices we will hear all afternoon; and they also preview the show’s promise as they sing, “Every moment brings a treasure of its own especial measure.” They, like the entire cast, will wander from scene to scene mixing and matching roles, sometimes blending some from one operetta into those of another. As they forewarn with sparkling song, “We’ll be gods and make decrees and play whatever parts we please.”
For those of us who have enjoyed through the years Gilbert and Sullivan but are in no way aficionados, there will be moments during the afternoon when we will readily recognize a favorite Gilbert and Sullivan and are tempted to hum along. Aléxa Anderson’s soprano voice brings sighs and smiles as she begins in aria style “Refrain, audacious tar” from the perennially popular H.M.S. Pinafore with Patrick Hagen adding a tenor that sweeps effortlessly to the heavens. A troupe of marching, “Keystone-like” cops “tarantara, tarantara” up and down the stage to audience delight as their Sergeant (Charles Martin) with full gusto brings to bear his bass-baritone voice in “When the foreman bares his steel” from the much-loved, oft-produced Pirates of Penzance. And who is also not tempted to join Maria Caycedo, Cary Ann Rosko, and Deborah Rosengaus as they trip happily as if traipsing carefree along a mountain stream in “Three Little Maids” from another G&S favorite, Mikado?
But the joy of this Soiree is that we as audience get to taste operetta samples from what we may consider as classics as well as perhaps from those we have no familiarity. The afternoon also enables us to hear the wide range of musical styles that Gilbert and Sullivan willed to the world. Several of the twenty offerings are prime examples of the pair’s well-known “patter songs,” those like the “Finale” of Iolanthe during which a sextet sings in supersonic speeds tongue twisters that those who are mere mortals could never speak – much less sing in close and perfect harmonies. With its waves of streaming “fa-la-lahs,” “Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day” (The Mikado) provides the hilarious and melodic wedding-scene quartet of Amy Foote, Michelle Schroeder, Patrick Hagen, and Bill Neely to illustrate an example of a G&S madrigal. From the same musical comes a much darker song of lonely sorrow and regret as mezzo-soprano Sonia Gariaeff sings with tones hauntingly deep, “Alone and Yet Alive.” On the other end of the spectrum is the grand waltz-like, richly melodic sound of the entire ensemble in “Now Julia, Come” from Grand Duke. Throughout the afternoon, there are many varieties from the Gilbert and Sullivan garden of musical blossoms that this casts displays for us with aplomb.
What is regretful is that the opportunity is limited to sample this beginning-to-end repertoire of the pair whose operetta, comic creations are the forebears to today’s musical comedies. By this review’s publication, the first three performances (two live and one also streamed from Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco on February 19 and 20) will have already closed. Fortunately, two more full productions of cast and symphony will occur March 5 and 6 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. I highly recommend both those who consider themselves Gilbert and Sullivan connoisseurs and those who only know a smattering of their abundant offerings not to miss this chance for a musically soaring tour of the pair’s legacy. Lamplighters Musical Theatre is giving to the San Francisco Bay Area an anniversary gift that needs to be opened by as many music lovers as possible.
Rating: 5 E
Celebrating 150 Years of Gilbert and Sullivan! A Sesquicentennial Soiree of Scenes continues 2 p.m., March 5 and 6, 2022, in live performance at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA. Tickets are available online at https://tickets.mvcpa.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=440 or by calling the box office at 650-903-6000. Full vaccination or a negative COVID test is required as well as wearing a mask during the performance.