Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Merriment from the Lamplighters


Jonathan Spencer as Arthur Sullivan, and Charles Martin as W.S. Gilbert, in Lamplighters Music Theatre's original musical, A Song to Sing, O!: The Gilbert & Sullivan Story. Photo: Courtesy Lamplighters
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Lamplighters Music Theatre, the treasured San Francisco-based home for traditional stagings of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, is closing their 64th season with an original musical, A Song to Sing, O!: The Gilbert & Sullivan Story. Conceived, written and directed by Artistic Director Emeritus Barbara Heroux (LMT, 1974), the show is a revival of the award-winning production from 1998. After opening San Francisco performances last month, the musical revue moved to the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, where I caught the chance to wallow in a feast of G&S songs.

Featuring a salon orchestra of 10 musicians cherry-picked from the marvelous Lamplighters ensemble, led from the piano by legendary Music Director/Conductor Baker Peeples (over 40 years with LMT), a talented cast of familiar veterans, and the typically adept production team, A Song to Sing, O! presents a long evening of delightful music and sometimes tedious exposition.

Even English filmmaker Mike Leigh tended to go on a bit with his brilliant 1999 biopic Topsy-Turvy, but he achieved better concision centering the drama on the staging of the famous partners' The Mikado at a turning point in their tumultuous career. Heroux's narrative tries to have it all, not only explaining the authors' lives, but also the plot-lines of their many comic operas. As biography, the story is told in the broadest of strokes – sometimes with dialogue or recitation of facts, but usually most effectively with members of the ensemble singing or declaiming from Victorian newspapers.

Synopses of the operettas become an exercise in futility. You really have to see a full G&S show to understand W.S. Gilbert's whimsical and piercing wit. The stories are mere contraptions built to skewer the establishment, satirize grand opera and comment on universal human folly, all supported by Arthur Sullivan's gorgeously melodic and delightfully catchy music.

The title of the revue comes from a song in The Yeoman of the Guard, but I might have gone for a better descriptive line from "My object all sublime" in The Mikado: "A source of innocent merriment." There isn't enough pith in Heroux's depiction of the two writers to make a very satisfying drama. When the cast is left to romp their way through the actual work-product, the show takes wing.

All of the talented crew has also been handpicked from the impressive LMT Company of singing actors. We will acknowledge them alphabetically as the printed program does, but first mention the ostensible stars: Charles Martin as Gilbert, and Jonathan Spencer as Sullivan. Both have given much enjoyment for years in leading and supporting roles, and they each cut a fine figure in designer Melissa Wortman's and costumer Hannah Velichko's elegant period dress. Affecting mild English accents (as most LMT players sensibly adopt), the two stars portray as much personality and depth as possible, but I kept wishing they could step out of character and join their colleagues in song. We know they are richly capable of everything from patter to serenade.

Soprano Jennifer Ashworth (LMT, 2001) has a pleasing mezzo quality that adds weight to her coloratura and gravitas to her comic singing. That ability to sound operatic, even when acting the vaudevillian, is characteristic of Lamplighters performers.

F. Lawrence Ewing (1989) has also endeared himself to the LMT faithful with his many comic enactments, and he has a great talent for singing patter songs while staying in character.

Young tenor Samuel Faustine (2014) has proven himself in a variety of G&S leads as well as the titular role in the Company's ambitious mounting of Leonard Bernstein's Candide. His mixture of vocal purity and golly-shucks innocence makes him a natural.

Sonia Gariaeff (2003) is an admitted personal favorite due to her particularly polished blend of vocal ability and comic timing, but then I have to include Cary Ann Rosko (2006) for possessing the same qualities. They both command our undivided attention whenever they appear, and tickle us with hilarious characterizations.

But I'm skipping ahead. Let us just say that all of the players occupy a place of recognition and warm appreciation with LMT fans. Patrick Hagen (2016), William Neely (1978), lyric soprano (what a divine voice) Erin O'Meally (2015) and Robby Stafford (2009) personify the fabulous tradition with their versatile skills and memorable contributions. Chris Uzelac (2004) also embodies the LMT profile with a Company career that includes both comic and romantic leads and frequent stand-out supporting roles.

The ensemble makes A Song to Sing, O! worthy of its name; Messrs. Martin and Spencer give G&S due recognition. Final performance: May 14, Menlo Center for Performing Arts, Atherton.




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