Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Yeomen of the Savoy faithful


Deborah Rosengaus as Dame Carruthers in Lamplighters Music Theatre's "The Yeomen of the Guard." Photo: Joe Giammarco
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San Francisco's world-renowned Lamplighters Music Theatre opened their 65th season last week in the East Bay with Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Yeomen of the Guard" at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Maintaining their tradition of multiple casting in major roles, the operetta next plays Mountain View, Aug. 12-13, before arriving in SF Aug. 18-20. The final weekend will be in Livermore at the end of the month. It can't be called an out-of-town tryout, and opening night was predictably polished, but any early-run problems with timing and pacing should be remedied by the time the show hits Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater.

When Gilbert and Sullivan premiered "The Yeomen of the Guard" at London's Savoy Theatre, well over a century ago, they were attempting an ambitious re-mix of their fabulous formula for success. Sullivan got his wish to compose music of serious substance, blended with his gift for instantly hummable tunes. Gilbert dared to mix genuine pathos with his cleverly crafted humor in the libretto. The results were a somewhat confusing hybrid, often deemed a bit too sober-sided, but universally praised as the most operatic work in the partnership's popular canon.

Despite early critical doubts, "The Yeomen of the Guard" was still well-received by the Savoy faithful, managing to rack up a healthy run of 423 performances. The old "don't mess with success" warning didn't stop the artistic partnership from bravely developing their vision. Tinkering with the usual social satire and topsy-turvy stories, going for melodramatic plot twists and adding shadowy depth to the characters must have provided a welcome challenge to the writers. They struggled with their new view right up to the premiere. The audience and critics alike were, understandably, both surprised and intrigued. Thankfully, some of Gilbert's reliable conventions remained: tongue-twisting patter, feisty sopranos and battle-axe mezzos; without them, the production would have been pretty solemn indeed.

Long stretches of dramatic exposition are voiced in a sort of quasi-Shakespearian prose, and the usual happy ending tidying-up, with joyously united couples, was also discarded. The hero is awaiting execution at the start of the play and by the final curtain; we have to admit many of the characters haven't proven themselves all that likeable. The departures from formula did result in an operetta that feels awfully close to grand opera, and the Savoy cast must have relished their new opportunities for hamming it up in scenes of highfalutin Victorian drama. For the audiences of today, the changes may seem overreaching at times, but we can't help admiring the beauty of the music and the spirit of the tale.

The Lamplighters are clearly committed to bringing fresh vigor and sense to the convoluted results, and with characteristic flair, they mostly succeed. No one could really make it too relevant or contemporary without at least making some cuts to the overlong first act, but too much updating or editing would spoil the arc of Sullivan's gorgeous score. Music Director/Conductor Baker Peeples entered the pit on opening night with all his legendary years of leadership and experience at hand, to guide the wonderfully rich orchestra through the beautifully conceived Overture.

That attention to musical detail, along with the superior vocal talents of the cast, made a convincing case for the long-winded story, even if the spoken dialogue was occasionally tedious. Supertitles used only for the musical numbers might have been helpful. Jokes didn't land, and some of the best lines were muddled. Opening-night carefulness was sometimes a hindrance to comic timing. The performers added immeasurably to creating an atmosphere of relative dramatic believability, and they injected humorous warmth whenever possible.

Sumptuous production design is another Lamplighters tradition. The delightfully old-fashioned and painterly scenic design by Peter Crompton was illuminated by the vivid lighting design of Ellen Brooks and enlivened by the gorgeous original costume design by John Gilkerson. Those picture-perfect outfits were accented by Kerry Rider-Kuhn's excellent wig and hair design.

The handling of the stage picture and dexterous movement of the many characters and large and wonderfully sonorous chorus were achieved with remarkable subtlety by stage director Jane Erwin Hammett. She blocked the action as the Victorian theatrical it is. If anything could make the last-minute surprise at the finale seem more plausible, Hammett's approach seems most sensible.

Company veterans Charles Martin as Lieutenant Cholmondeley and Deborah Rosengaus as the especially unpleasant Dame Carruthers invested their roles with all the fine timing and wit of their experience. Another fine standout was Lamplighters stalwart Jonathan Spencer as Sergeant Meryll. Like La Rosengaus, he can get a laugh with the smallest gesture.

In the roles of Colonel Fairfax (the condemned) and Wilfred Shadbolt (gaoler and assistant tormentor), Patrick Hagen and John Melis sang and acted with confidence. Melis deserves extra credit for making a torturer semi-acceptable!

As Leonard Meryll, Ron Houk sang well and made the most of his lines. Michele Schroeder portrayed Phoebe Meryll with great wit and a bright mezzo-soprano voice. She might have been a little more vixenish; her charm gave the role too much sympathy. Still, she made enough contrast with soprano Julia Mulholland as Elsie Maynard. Elsie is more the G&S heroine we expect, and Mulholland acted believably while sounding beautifully musical.

Jacob Botha as Jack Point, the paid jester or "The Merryman" in the operetta's alternative title, "The Merryman and His Maid," grew in strength throughout the evening. His singing voice was pale to start, but his acting was compensation, despite some rushing through dialogue. By the final curtain he was fully in stride and (no spoiler) his last act was truly memorable.


More info on "The Yeomen of the Guard":


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