They sail the ocean blue
by Philip Campbell
"Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen," sing the young lovers in the Act I finale of Gilbert & Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, or The Lass Who Loved a Sailor. Last week, the audience at the 63rd season opening of the Lamplighters Music Theatre at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek obviously felt the same way.
The cumulative pleasures of the show could have been reliably predicted by anyone who has encountered the expert troupe before. The Lamplighters are all about tradition, and as premier American safeguards of the beloved G&S repertoire, they keep the stock in unspoiled order. Their picture-perfect production of the most popular operetta in the canon arrived spotlessly ship-shape with freshly polished parts.
Making his company debut, conductor and music director David Moschler set the bar high early. Throughout the swiftly paced performance he still managed to elicit wonderful detail from the estimable Lamplighters Orchestra. We have always marveled at the rich sound that comes from a mere 21 players (no synthesizers here, thank you very much), but Moschler has even excelled Resident Music Director Baker Peeples in his symphonic handling of Sir Arthur Sullivan's familiar evergreen score.
It was up to the singers to elucidate W.S. Gilbert's witty lyrics and his complicated but characteristically daffy libretto. After some opening-night breathlessness, all of the alternating players in the lead roles warmed to their full vocal abilities. With sympathetic support from the pit and from the clearly delighted audience, they soon lost any self-consciousness and fell easily into Stage Director Phil Lowery's sensible game plan.
As the fated-to-be-mated lovers, tenor Aaron Gallington (company debut) and soprano Jennifer Ashworth made the haughty captain's daughter Josephine and the bold tar Ralph (say Rafe) Rackstraw an attractive pair. They also declaimed their parts with passion, but Gallington often showed a little too much, making some of his words virtually unintelligible. In keeping with the character perhaps, but the supertitles only illuminated the songs, not the humorous speeches.
"Give three cheers and one cheer more for the hardy Captain of the Pinafore." As Josephine's father and soon to be happily demoted sea captain, Jonathan Spencer was in excellent voice and at the top of his acting game.
And then, of course, there is "dear Little Buttercup." After a slightly shaky start and opening aria, Sonia Gariaeff quickly relaxed and made a happy meal of her famous part. When she made her outrageous confession in Act II, it was almost a surprise, so natural was her delivery. She also rocked the costume design of Judy Jackson MacIlvaine, who also created the expected visual impact for the rest of the cast. The production values of the Lamplighters, especially in the costume division, are always remarkably rich.
As the snobbish Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty, F. Lawrence Ewing returned yet again to the spotlight for a thoroughly satisfying portrayal and funny rendition of one of the most memorable of all G&S songs, "When I Was a Lad." Ewing's comic timing in this material just gets better with every passing year.
In the mostly spoken role of the comically dreary Dick Deadeye, dark and deep-voiced Charles Martin still rode over the chorus in ensembles, and simply upstaged everyone acting in his path. He deserved the attention, and the cast reacted to his every loathsome utterance with appropriate dismay.
Cabiria Jacobsen as Hebe, one of Sir Joseph's plentiful "sisters and cousins and aunts," also held her own in a part that could easily sink beneath the waves of more familiar characters and songs.
Bill Bobstay (The Boatswain) was essayed attractively by another company mainstay, Chris Uzelac (he is alternating in the role of Sir Joseph). The Chorus of Sailors, Sisters, Cousins and Aunts filled the sturdy Quarterdeck, designed by Peter Crompton, with lusty and mostly lady-like (the Savoyards seemed to admire saucier maids) voices. They were also quite nimble in movement, cleverly staged by assistant director and choreographer Loretta Janca.
The entire crew sails to Mountain View this weekend and then to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, August 14-16. The run will end in Livermore at the Bankhead Theatre August 22-23.
Tickets & info: lamplighters.org.