I am always amazed at how fresh William S. Gilbert’s humor continues to be in this day and age. Even though it was written over one hundred years ago, the writing in “The Gondoliers” is always delightful and at times hysterically funny. This was made abundantly clear in the current Lamplighters production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s twelfth operetta, which I had the good fortune to see this past Sunday afternoon at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
“The Gondoliers” is a show without a lead. This was by design. The original production company had a largely stable group of performers, many of whom had been in a large number of the operettas. By 1889, the actors and actresses who played the less visible roles wanted to be featured, too. Gilbert decided to resolve the issue by writing a tale that had two lead couples, and a few other people who could be considered leads as well. To drive the point home, Gilbert made the plot about what happens when the concept of equality is taken to extremes. Perhaps the defining line in the operetta is “When everyone is somebody then no one’s anybody!”
The lavish production was a feast for the eyes, with the bright reds, greens, purples and blues of the peasant overgarments contrasted against the bright white of the blouses. The costumes of the nobility were equally stunning. Don Alhambra, played to comic perfection by Charles Martin, cut quite a dashing figure in his black and red Grand Inquisitor’s outfit. His resonant bass voice filled the hall for his two solo numbers, and more frequently than not he elicited gales of laughter from the audience from his impeccable timing in his delivery of some of Gilbert’s best lines. “Of that there is no manner of doubt, no probable, possible shadow of doubt, no possible doubt whatever.”
The Duke of Plaza Toro is the patter man of this show, and F. Lawrence Ewing brought him to life as a genuinely sympathetic and likable character, all the while keeping the audience in stitches. The Duke’s entire entourage was very strong. Cary Ann Rosko played the Duchess with a bit of a twinkle in her eye, always stepping in to get the Duke to up his game. She made her second act solo come alive by her top rate acting, keeping the audience interested by really telling the story while thrilling us with her lush contralto.
Soprano Patricia Westley was extremely impressive as Casilda. Her soprano voice carried above the orchestra with grace and power. She was well matched to her secret lover Luiz, played by Patrick Hagen. He handled this seemingly minor role deftly, combining just a tinge of goofiness with a level of insight beyond that of the other characters. Being his grace’s “own particular drum” he had occasion to delight the audience with his onstage percussion skills.
The title roles of “The Gondoliers” were played by Samuel Rabinowitz as Giuseppe and Michael Desnoyers as Marco. Lamplighters veterans, they were completely comfortable with their parts. They delivered the most seamless rendition of “Replying we speak as one individual” that I have witnessed. Their voices were complementary, blending perfectly in their many duets. They played off of each other beautifully, and brought out the humor of their parts without going for the cheap laugh.
The female leads Gianetta and Tessa were played by respectively by Amy Foot and newcomer Whitney Steele. Ms. Foot’s delicate lyric soprano voice was particularly moving in “O, my darling, O my pet” as she bemoaned her upcoming separation with her brand new husband. Ms. Steele is a welcome addition to the Lamplighters family, with a rich mezzo voice and acting ability to match.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of any Lamplighters production is the extremely high quality of ensemble. The chorus was superb in the production, with impecabble diction and blend. A tip of the hat has to go to stage director Phil Lowery for allowing and encouraging each member to be a living character. His vision for the entire production worked well, and he allowed the material to stand on its own without resort to gimmicks.
The 21 piece orchestra under the direction of Baker Peeples was in top form. Sullivan was a master of orchestral color, and every instrument is featured alone and in combination at some point or another. It is a real treat to hear the 10 strings along with two flutes, two clarinets, oboe, bassoon, two horns, cornet, trombone and percussion. In this day of amplified electronic sounds, it is really wonderful to hear the actual acoustic blend of live instruments.
“The Gondoliers” runs for two more weekends with performances in Walnut Creek and Mountain View.