For many years, The Haverford School in Pennsylvania hewed to its tradition of producing a random play in the fall and tackling one of the “basic” Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the spring — “basic,” meaning it involved a boat, or something boat-related (pirate, admiral, drunken Gondolier, land in Asia that would seem exotic to a British librettist, etc.), and a storyline that would provide grist for comedy. Haverford alum F. Lawrence Ewing can easily rattle off the list: “Pinafore, Pirates, Iolanthe, Patience, Trial, Gondoliers, and Mikado.”
Now the executive director of Marin Ballet and a longtime performer in Lamplighters Music Theatre, Ewing still reaps the benefits of a childhood steeped in Gilbert and Sullivan: “I grew up seeing G&S every spring at Haverford, as well as many performances by Philadelphia’s Savoy Company at Longwood Gardens,” he wrote in a recent e-mail, which also recounted his various roles: Dragoon Guard in Patience as a freshman; Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance as a sophomore; Foreman of the Jury in Trial by Jury as a junior. And, finally, the apex: Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore, to mark his senior year.
Porter, the imperious, privileged, rather undeserving admiral of the queen’s navy, is also the main suitor for the captain’s daughter, Josephine. But her heart lies elsewhere — specifically, with the lower-class mariner, Ralph Rackstraw. Therein lies the tension. In many senses, the role of Sir Joseph would be Ewing’s high school legacy. Not only did he get to play a male lead, he also got to be one of the most beloved aristocratic nitwits in Savoy Opera history.
Ewing is ready to revisit that role with Lamplighters. And, fittingly, he’s playing opposite the same actor who took the part of Captain Corcoran back at Haverford, in 1982. It’s a long-awaited reprise: Ewing is now 46, Behrend Eilers, who plays Corcoran, is a spry 47. Their theatrical partnership actually predates the Pinafore, since both had also held roles in Trial, and in the fall production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Eilers as Biff, Ewing as Howard). Ewing said the two became friends as sophomores, and stayed in touch for the next 29 years. They both joined Lamplighters in ’89, taking chorus parts, appropriately, in a Trial/Pinafore double bill.
Thus far, the current production — directed by Jane Erwin Hammett — has been a rousing success. That’s to be expected of Gilbert and Sullivan, whose comic song-and-dance numbers, and gleeful trouncing of the British upper-class, remain funny more than one hundred years since their inception. Moreover, Lamplighters is known for employing nimble actors with wondrously supple voices. This production features two promising rookies: Michael Belle, as Rackstraw, and Lindsay Thompson Roush, as Josephine.
For the vets, though, it will never quite measure up to the high school production at Haverford. Because really, how can an adult theater company compete with a cast of cute, pimpled adolescents, and an avuncular chorus director (also an English teacher), Mr. Hallowell, who urged Ewing to deliver “a Jack Benny look to the audience” as his final coup de grace.
“The final curtain call is one we’ve remembered for years — it still makes me tear up,” Ewing wrote. At that point, he had to stop waxing nostalgic: “Okay … enough of the memories … I’m making myself verklempt!” H.M.S. Pinafore runs Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 20-21, at the Bankhead Theater (2400 1st St., Livermore). 2 p.m., $21.50-$40.50.