The Lamplighters continue to amaze with their ability to bring the works of Gilbert and Sullivan to life. This past weekend they presented “The Sorcerer” at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. Although this operetta is not one of the better known offerings of the famous duo, based on this performance, it should be. The production was fresh and full of life while staying true to the comedy inherent in the script.
The story is a bit of a combination of the writings of Jane Austen and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummers’ Night’s Dream.” The setting is a small village at the turn of the 18th century inhabited by gentry and country folk. Young, idealistic aristocrat Alexis Pointdextre is going to marry Aline Sangazure, and is so ecstatic at being in love that he thinks that everyone in the village should enjoy the same feelings. The twist is that he believes that the rank, station, age and personal preference of prospective partners should not matter, as love for love’s sake is pure.
Alexis arranges for a local sorcerer, John Wellington Wells, to administer a love potion surreptitiously in a pot of tea to the entire village. As you might imagine, the villagers awaken and fall madly in love with the first person they encounter, who of course is an inappropriate match, and hilarity ensues. This does not bother Alexis until Aline drinks the potion at his insistence, and promptly falls for the vicar, Dr. Daly. The only way to undue the spell is for either Wells or Alexis to die to appease the dark forces, and the villagers decide that that must be the sorcerer’s fate.
Alexis was played in suitably arrogant fashion by the bright, high tenor Robert Vann. This was complemented well by the lyric soprano of Lindsay Thompson Roush as Aline. She thrilled the audience with high notes in her whistle register that came floating out over the audience, filling the theater. Rose Frazier, a recent graduate of the SF Conservatory of Music, played the soubrette role Constance. Her warm and resonant voice was even throughout her range, and was a delight to hear. She demonstrated a keen comic flair in “Dear friends, take pity on my lot” as she bemoans falling in love with the doddering old Notary, ably performed by James MacIlvaine.
Chris Uzelac played the title role superbly. “My name is John Wellington Wells” is one of the most difficult of the patter baritone songs in the entire G&S canon. It is fast, wordy, and has no place to breathe. Uzelac carried it off without a hitch. He made a suitably creepy sorcerer, and was very funny, although at times it was a bit difficult to understand his Cockney accent. He was particularly striking in the “incantation” scene, in which he summons the demons to activate the love potion as he infuses it into the tea. The demons were brought to life by the use of back projections of shadows onto a drop cloth, much in the manner of Thai shadow puppets. The effect was marvelous.
The older characters were standouts as well. Robby Stafford is always impressive, and his perfectly nuanced acting and bravura singing with his glorious bass voice made Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre (Alexis’s father) one of the most entertaining aspects of the afternoon. He was matched well with newcomer Megan Stetson as Aline’s mother, Lady Sangazure. Gilbert often pokes fun at the contralto role, but Stetson made the character both sympathetic and believable. Their duet, “Welcome, joy! adieu to sadness” stole the show with the alternation of the dignified, staid public appearance of the would be lovers and the agitated heat of their internal emotions so brilliantly set by Sullivan. The choreography of this scene, presumably by stage director Jane Erwin Hammett, was superlative as well.
Ms. Hammett had her work cut out for her, as there is no orchestra pit in the Herbst Theater. Consequently, the orchestra was right on the stage, the conceit being that we were watching a performance in the 1890’s from behind the scenes. Hammett’s use of a raised platform behind the orchestra connecting via a ramp through the middle of the instrumentalists to the state area in front was ingenious. The overture was the musical background to a kind of “silent movie” involving the backstage antics of the actors, which was quite charming. Even he conductor James Campbell was on stage in character for all to see. His handling of the orchestra was excellent, and the musical interpretations were right on.
The Lamplighters’ new season opens in August with Gilbert and Sullivan’s fairy opera “Iolanthe,” and they will also be performing Johann Strauss’s perennial favorite “Die Fledermaus” in the New Year.