Lamplighters Music Theater in San Francisco is known for their productions of the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. However, from time to time they present other works as well. Their current offering is a case in point, Johann Strauss II’s magnum opus Die Fledermaus in the premiere of a new translation into English from the original German by David Scott Marley.
Sunday’s production at the Yerba Buena Center for the Performing Arts was an absolute delight from start to finish. Marley’s libretto works reasonably well, updating the language for a modern audience without losing the charm or spirit of the original. The stage direction by Barbara Heroux was inspired, with lots of little bits of business that were quite funny without being slapstick. She understands the holistic experience of musical theater, balancing all of the elements from costumes and sets to casting and the look of how everything and everyone is positioned on the stage. As a consequence, every scene is visually pleasurable, fitting in with the comedic or dramatic tone of the moment.
Strauss is known as the waltz king, and for good reason. His melodies are infectious, his rhythms toe-tapping, and his compositional underpinnings remarkably sophisticated. I am reminded of the 1954 film ” Stars and Stripes Forever” in which everything the young John Philip Sousa writes ends up sounding like a march. In Strauss’s case, everything seems to end up being a waltz or a polka. This makes Die Fledermaus very memorable, and even the characters in the show leave humming or whistling the tunes.
The cast was superb. Each time a new character came on stage, I thought they were going to steal the show. We are first exposed to Alfred, an Italian tenor played perfectly by Mark Kratz. The new libretto fleshes out his character a bit, giving Kratz a golden opportunity to show his flair for comedy. Next comes Elizabeth Russ playing Adele the chambermaid. Although this is the soubrette role, Adele has a very large part, with lots of vocal fireworks and funny situations. Russ’s performance of the famous laughing song in act II was gorgeous and hilarious at the same time while showing off her impressive vocal flexibility. Her comedic timing was second to none, and she kept the audience laughing throughout the afternoon.
The lead female role is Rosalinde, sung beautifully by Lindsay Thompson Roush. She had a commanding presence, and was able to deftly handle the transition from passive wife to masked Hungarian countess. Roush has a lovely, strong voice, and she has great control. It was thrilling to hear her crescendo from a soft pianissimo to a powerful forte on any number of high, sustained notes. She was very funny as well, and her rascally “ahs” floating above the other voices in the first act trio “O je, o je, wie rührt mich dies” elicited peals of laughter every time.
Rosalinde’s husband, the philandering Eisenstein, was played by equity actor Martin Lewis. His lyrical tenor voice had a lovely tone, and we could understand every word without resorting to the supertitles. Lewis’s acting was strong as well, and he showed great range as both the outwitted playboy and the self-righteous husband.
Eisenstein is scheduled to go to jail the morning after a great party, which has been set up by his friend Dr. Falke as a revenge prank. Lamplighters regular William Neely hit just the right tone as the scheming physician. Part of the prank involves the fact that Herr Frank, the warden of the jail, has been invited to the same party, though neither he nor Eisenstein is aware of who the other is. Samuel Rabinowitz was quite impressive as Frank, even though he is much younger than the part is normally played. It actually made it easier to believe that Frank and Eisenstein would end up becoming friends. Rabinowitz had a warm bass voice that easily filled the room. Amazingly, he also was able to whistle the famous Fledermaus waltz perfectly in tune as his character stumbled drunkenly into the jail in act III.
Bruce Hoard was Frosch, the jailer, and his interactions with Frank were some of the best moments in the new libretto. Frosch is a non-singing role, and is sometimes given to a well-known comedian to improvise. Though sticking to the script, Hoard was very funny as he kept making reference to the fact that “he” made it to work on time, as opposed to the warden who came in very late, drunk and in evening dress.
As wonderful as all the principals were, I think my favorite had to have been Elliot Franks as Prince Orlofsky, the bored Russian nobleman who throws the lavish party in act II in which all the characters end up in embarrassing situations. Franks sang in the solo quartet in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Carmel Bach Festival a few years ago to great acclaim. However, Orlofsky is the part he was born to play. Traditionally a “pants” role, Franks was perfectly suited vocally for the part, and he sang the famous “Chacun a son gout” with aplomb. He was also very funny, and pretty much stole the show during whenever he was on stage.
The second act is the only real opportunity for the chorus. The Lamplighters choristers are well known for their well thought out characters, and this trait made the party scene come alive. On top of that, their diction was impeccable and their phrasing precise. I was particularly impressed with their ability to dance a Viennese polka on the relatively small stage without bumping into each other. The choreography by Tom Segal was just right for the occasion.
Music director George Cleve was taken ill by the flu, and so Assistant Music Director Maya Barascq did the honors of leading the pit orchestra. The tempos and balance were all fine, and the instrumentalists executed Strauss’s score with skill and grace.
Next up for the Lamplighters is a sing along H.M.S Pinafore in March. Next season features the ever popular The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan’s last joint work The Grand Duke, and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.