Perhaps William Gilbert was frightened by an actor as a child, and spent his life determined to wreak vicious revenge. How else to explain his writing librettos that force their performers to trip through lines like I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus/In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous? One imagines whole asylums full of actors driven mad trying to wrestle Gilbert and Sullivan songs to the ground.
But instead of asylums, we have perfomance spaces all over the world ringing with the sounds of the British duo’s light operas, a hundred years and more after they were written. Consider this: There is a G&S song being performed somewhere in the world every minute. And right now, happily, the minute is on our turf, as the Lamplighters sail a bawdily cheerful Pirates of Penzance into port.
The fifth collaboration from the twosome is deeply silly, even by G&S standards. The story is driven by a woman’s inability to keep straight the words “pilot” and “pirate,” and the characteristic twist is based once again on an accident of birth. Young Frederic’s nurse Ruth is told to take the child to be apprenticed to be a pilot. But she hears a different word altogether, and Frederic ends up spending his childhood learning the fine art of terrorizing the high seas. But his teachers aren’t the mean, nasty sort of pirates; as he notes, they’re far too soft-hearted to be really effective. Especially since word got out that they’ll release any prisoners who claim to be orphans. Frederic shares this management-school theory with the pirate band on his 21st birthday, the day he’s freed from his indenture. He then explains that he never wanted to be a pirate. Indeed, he’s looking forward to coming back with reinforcements and cleaning out the pirates’ nest.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way. There’s his amorous old nurse to contend with, and a gaggle of maidens out for a picnic, and their father the major-general who knows more about Aristophanes than he does warfare, and all sorts of other twists and surprises, the G&S stock in trade. Callow Frederic, who calls himself “the slave of duty,” must decide where his loyalty lies while the stage fills up with bouncing girls, bumbling cops, and an awfully clean-looking batch of pirates.
F. Lawrence Ewing is pronunciation-perfect as Major-General Stanley. The first moment the actor in that role opens his mouth is a delicate one in a room full of whirling-eyed G&S aficionados: Will he get the famously tongue-breakingly song right? Ewing does, and also holds his own against the charismatic Behrend Eilers as the nimble pirate king and his lieutenant Samuel, solidly played by a warbling Philip Sokolov.
While Lamplighters shows tend to be well choreographed, under Jane Hammett’s direction this one is especially complicated and visually lively, with more use of varying levels and props. Overall, the dance and movement are quite cute, especially the springy girls and the ballet-slash-interpretive-dance of police and pirates culminating in the major general hoisting the pirate king, Swan Lake-style. This wakes up the second act, which has a boggy part in the middle with a bunch of men repeating themselves and each other once or twice too often.
Many of the usual G&S themes show up here. Besides the “topsy-turvy” aspects, there’s that old, sad, plain, or ugly woman Gilbert loved so much, calling upon the audience to pity her. This time it’s Ruth’s desperation to leave the pirate band with the boy she raised. She wants to marry him, but he’s exceptionally, gratuitously cruel with her, demanding that she tell him if she is beautiful or not, and then abandoning her as soon as he gets his first glimpse of some younger women. She gets hers back, though, never fear, in a saucy rendition from Kathleen Moss, making her hilarious Lamplighters debut. Moss is great; a big clear voice, a mobile face, and an over-the-top handling of one of the show’s sillier roles.
Another Lamplighters newbie is Robert Wood, who picks up the conductor’s baton from Baker Peeples. Under his clean direction, the overture bubbles and tickles. The first rise of the strings after the sprightly, martial opening is delicate and sure, the soft pacing a nice contrast to the speed of the sections on either side. It’s worth sitting up a little straighter just to watch Wood. He appears to be dancing with his musicians, using his head, shoulders, and upper torso to shape the music like clay. Overall, it’s easier to hear the lyrics in this show than it has been for a few years, although they may not hold up as well in the front of the Dean Lesher as they did at the Yerba Buena opening night. Walnut Creek audiences might want to try for seats in the middle of the room to see if that helps resolve some of the acoustic gumminess up at the front, where the live instruments make it hard to hear the singers. But they should definitely try for seats; this production is a bright, fun interpretation of the G&S classic.