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

Savoyard affair


Michael Desnoyers as Marco and Samuel Rabinowitz as Giuseppe in Lamplighters Music Theatre's "The Gondoliers." Photo: David Allen
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Lamplighters Music Theatre entered the 2018 side of their 65th season last weekend with an exuberant production of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Gondoliers, or, The King of Barataria" at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The San Francisco-based company is a Northern California tradition that happily survives, relying on a corps of professionals and a constantly refreshed ensemble of new talent. Standards are kept high, and respect for the wonderfully topsy-turvy world of G&S is supreme.

Even when plots are contrived and improbable (and with W.S. Gilbert, that's usually the case), the Lamplighters cut to the core with expert comic instinct and musicianship. With "The Gondoliers," these virtues are especially important. One of those "mix-ups at birth" stories that kept audiences roaring with laughter at London's Savoy in 1889, the scenario brings two infant boys from fictional Barataria to Venice, where the grownup lads, raised to become gondoliers, pick their brides in a sort of "blind-man's bluff." In typical G&S fashion, both of the chosen sopranos are clever, willful and pretty.

The quartet of lovers soon learns one of the boys was whisked away in infancy to protect him until his eventual assumption of the throne of Barataria. His parents also married him to the baby daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro before the carrying-off to Italy.

F. Lawrence Ewing and Cary Ann Rosko as the Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro in Lamplighters Music Theatre's "The Gondoliers." Photo: David Allen

On top of that, only their ancient nursemaid can identify which of the youths is the actual royal heir! The lately impoverished Duke and Duchess arrive in Venice with Casilda, their daughter (the bride), to claim kinship because the throne has finally been cleared by an insurrection.

It goes on; believe me, it goes on, until the sublimely silly deus ex machina of the finale. But who really cares if the story is believable? The jokes and patter songs are plentiful, and Arthur Sullivan supplied some of his sunniest melodies for the ballads and rousing choruses.

"The Gondoliers" was the 12th G&S collaboration of 14, and a big hit, racking up 554 performances, to make it the fifth longest-running piece of musical theatre in history at the time. Loyal Savoyards will pardon the rather tired retread of the partners' formula. I look to "The Gondoliers" for the irresistible music.

Veteran director Phil Lowery has excelled with a tightly staged production that moves swiftly through the twists and turns of the libretto. Choreographer Jayne Zaban also speeds the action. The surprisingly nimble ensemble gleefully executes her tricky steps. "Dance a cachucha," a cross between a tarantella and the Macarena, is one of the show's highlights.

Peter Crompton's scenic design is colorfully attractive, and the gorgeous costumes, always a Lamplighters hallmark, are breathtaking. Kerry-Rider Kuhn's realistic wigs beautifully adorn Judy Jackson's (original costume design) and Miriam Lewis' (additional costume design) lavish outfits.

After more than four decades, Music Director/Conductor Baker Peeples still elicits a warm and rich response from the solid orchestra. He maintains a lively beat, always ready to caress a charming refrain.

The current production is single cast. After the thoroughly confident opening-night performance, I could understand why. Without any weak links or need of forbearance for apprentices, the cast tore through the night with aplomb.

The young gondoliers were attractively and convincingly portrayed by Michael Desnoyers as Marco and Samuel Rabinowitz as Giuseppe. Matching them for sheer cuteness and singing excellence, Amy Foote as Gianetta and Whitney Steele as Tessa added strong personality to their roles.

Standing apart from the quartet of principals, Patricia Westley was a lovely Casilda. Her singing and acting showed an impressive range.

As her snobbish and befuddled parents, Lamplighters veterans F. Lawrence Ewing and Cary Ann Rosko had the audience hanging on every amusing word.

Don Alhambra Del Bolero, the grand inquisitor, was essayed by the irrepressibly arch Charles Martin. Looking like Captain Hook and sounding just as sly, he was both funny and rich-voiced.

As the character who embodies the aforementioned deus ex machina, lyric tenor Patrick Hagen was an agreeably robust Luiz (the Duke's Attendant).


"The Gondoliers" continues at Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, Feb. 9-11 (easily accessible by BART), and Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Feb. 17-18.


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