by Philip Campbell
Lamplighters Music Theatre, the Bay Area's beloved Gilbert & Sullivan troupe, opened a revival of their internationally acclaimed production of Princess Ida last week at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Relatively obscure compared to other gems in the Savoy canon (Pinafore, Mikado, Penzance, Iolanthe ), the tale of early feminist separatist Princess Ida remains a provocative and truly amusing example of the G&S formula for success.
Repeating their award-winning production in the Diamond Anniversary 60th season is a smart reminder of the Lamplighters' remarkable tradition and offers a fitting farewell to stage director Barbara Heroux, who leaves her post as the company's artistic director in the coming spring.
It's a little dark at times (well, just a little), and retains some slightly uncomfortable jokes, but many of the complaints shared by Ida's disciples in her stalwart women's university still ring true today. Controversy surrounding Darwinism (even if Ida purports that only men and not women are descended from apes) rages on with no end in sight, and loveless marriages remain regularly arranged in high society. Warriors continue fighting for reasons unclear to themselves, and there are still too many men who think the equality of women is merely an inevitable social right, more to be tolerated than understood.
Avoiding what could have become somber social ridicule, the wit and sparkle of William S. Gilbert's words manage to keep the merriment coming. And though Sir Arthur Sullivan's remarkably subdued music in the Overture and some of the arias seems a little more solemn than expected, the sheer goofiness of the plot insures that Princess Ida remains a solid entertainment.
The subject matter has an edge, but it still yields a lot of laughs. Some of the biggest chuckles and downright hilarity result from the inclusion of comedy drag for three of the principal males as they attempt to sneak unawares into the sacred fortress of Ida's segregated college at Castle Adamant.
It seems that Prince Hilarion (the very capable and believable Robert Vann) was married to Ida when he was just two and she was but a one-year-old. He has spent the following 20 years pining for his bride. Along with his cronies at the court of his father King Hildebrand, he embarks on a quest to win her back.
The bright and liberated princess, quite sure of her own intelligence and independence, has banned men altogether, and resolutely demands that her followers maintain the same disinterest. Well, good luck with that, Princess.
The story finally resolves after three acts (the only G&S operetta to go beyond two) in the slightly uneasy and equivocal reunion of a couple who clearly have a lot of work ahead of them. Every supporting character gets a chance to divert us along the lengthy way, and it is great seeing the Lamplighters at the top of their comic form. It buoys the audience through most of the play's more ponderous moments.
Director Heroux leaves the stage empty at more than one point, and her movement of the large and excellent chorus is often rudimentary, but one could argue that this is an authentic Victorian-era approach, and it lends an endearingly artificial touch to the staging. The sumptuous original scenic and costume design by John Gilkerson is a visual treat, and the old-fashioned sets and eclectic get-ups seem perfect for an operetta the authors neglected to locate in either period or locale.
The requisite baritone patter songs are better, for my money, than even those in Pirates of Penzance, and veteran Jordan Eldridge as the echt-grumpy old man King Gama dispatches them with snarling believability. His role may be the least necessarily musical in a show that must have good singers to succeed. Everyone else sounds close to operatic, and Jennifer Ashworth in the title role sets the bar high for the rest of the cast. She is just right in her portrayal of the warmhearted but unwavering liberationist, and she sings with conviction and purity of tone.
As the Prince's buddies from court, both Michael Desnoyers as Cyril and Chris Uzelac as Florian have good voices supported by genuinely funny comic timing. Their scenes in drag were just as funny for their lack of feminine instinct as for their obvious enjoyment in the attempt.
Rose Frazier as Lady Psyche, Professor of Humanities at Castle Adamant and sister to Florian (yikes, those plot twists!), leads a supporting female team with solid assurance. As sour Lady Blanche, a suitably nasty Cary Ann Rosko reminded me of a nun I had in the sixth grade, but that only underlined her credibility.
Baker Peeples and the 21-piece Lamplighters Orchestra never cease to amaze. How he coaxes an almost symphonic sweep from such a relatively small crew is his secret and his gift. It always guarantees a satisfying enjoyment of Sullivan's wonderful music.
Princess Ida continues at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF, Fri.-Sun., Feb. 1-3; Bankhead Theatre, Livermore, Feb. 9-10; and Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Feb. 16-17.