Monday, January 9, 2012
One of the real treasures of the Bay Area - right up there with Chez Panisse, the cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge - is The Lamplighters, the world's best Gilbert & Sullivan troupe.
That distinction used to belong to England's D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which was founded in 1878 by Gilbert and Sullivan themselves with their producer, Richard D'Oyly Carte.
But the D'Oyly Carte company went belly-up in 1982, and since then The Lamplighters have taken their place at the top of the heap.
My evidence? Well, whenever The Lamplighters travel to Buxton, England to compete in the annual International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, they win first prize.
In 1997 the festival organizers tried an experiment: Since The Lamplighters are so good, they figured the Bay Area must be a hotbed of Gilbert & Sullivan enthusiasm. So that year they held the festival here in Berkeley on the Cal campus.
I was in hog heaven. I live only a few blocks from campus, so I got to see Gilbert & Sullivan companies from all over the world performing morning, noon and night.
But it was almost embarrassing how much better The Lamplighters were than everyone else
Remember when I was complaining last week that some singers simply "park and bark?" That's not what The Lamplighters do.
Yes, the singing is spectacular, but that's just the beginning. A Lamplighters production is more than a staged concert; it's a full-blown theatrical performance.
You know, with actors actually acting instead of standing around, waiting for their turn to sing. Better yet, you can even understand the words.
And that's important, because part of the charm is the way Gilbert used his rapier wit to skewer the sacred cows of Victorian society.
"The Mikado" is an attack on capital punishment. "HMS Pinafore" is about the cruelty of the British class system. "The Pirates of Penzance" is a devastating indictment of the stupidity of war. Comedy isn't funny unless there's hard truth behind it.
But instead of getting all preachy on you, Gilbert always couched his messages inside the most glorious nonsense. As their contemporary, Oscar Wilde, observed, "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you."
In Gilbert & Sullivan the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and Gilbert's words are even sharper when they're set to Sullivan's ravishingly lush music.
Not for nothing was Sullivan called "the English Mozart." Exquisite melody after exquisite melody flowed effortlessly from his pen. And they're even more beautiful when set off by Gilbert's deliciously tart lyrics. The net effect is sweet and sour on steroids.
The Lamplighters are celebrating their 60th anniversary, and they're kicking off the year next weekend with a sparkling new production of my favorite, "The Gondoliers," a political satire that was Gilbert and Sullivan's last great masterpiece before they finally split up for good.
(Unfortunately, despite their enormous success they cordially detested each other. They split up many times over the years, only to be talked into giving it another try by Carte, who was understandably reluctant to kill a goose that was laying golden eggs.)
"The Gondoliers" will have three performances at the Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco next weekend: Friday, Jan. 20 and Saturday, Jan 21 at 8 p.m., and a Sunday matinee on Jan. 22 at 2 p.m.
The following weekend, the show will move to the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek: Friday, Jan. 27 and Saturday, Jan 28 at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee on Jan. 29 at 2 p.m.
As Tessa (or is it Gianetta? I can never remember which one) says in Act 2, "O, it's too much happiness!"