Sunday, May 3, 2015

musical theatre review: The Lamplighters

The Grand Duke, or, The Statutory Duel, is the last and least of the 13 extant Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. It's the least performed, anyway. I've actually seen it three times, from different troupes. Of the previous productions, one was pretty enjoyable, the other was not. Now I've seen it from the Lamplighters, and it was as good as anything this venerable and often first-rate band has ever done. This was the last performance, so I'm sorry I can't send you to see it. I went over to Lesher in Walnut Creek for this one, so that I could meet up with friends from LA who'd come up for it. It was worth their trouble. We were transported with delight.

A ponderous comedy about a theatrical troupe trying to take over the government of a small German principality, The Grand Duke features a man whose attempts at scheming lead him to find that he's acquired contractual obligations to marry four different women at once. That everyone gets satisfactorily and conventionally paired off at the end suggests that there are a lot of characters to keep track of.

One key to making The Grand Duke work is to cut it. The better of the earlier productions was cut pretty severely. This one was cut moderately: several additional verses to songs, a couple whole numbers, and lots of dialogue went out. It still lasted 160 minutes with intermission.

The other key is simply strong and energetic performances. Everybody here threw themselves into it with enthusiasm, the three principals particularly so. Light baritone Chris Uzelac turned the thoroughly unlikeable Grand Duke Rudolph into a comic masterpiece, fretting and fussing all over, and, when he dives into the court fountain to retrieve his hat, contorting his legs around absurdly as Rudolph desperately tries to attract help from another character obliviously soliloquizing. The powerful low soprano Jennifer Ashworth regally strutted as the theatrical prima donna Julia, giving a parody of operatic mugging as she demonstrates how she'd play a jealous Grand Duchess. Robby Stafford as Ludwig, the company's leading man who becomes interim Grand Duke, was less dim and fatuous than I've seen the part played, but made up for that with vivid stage presence and an enormously strong voice.

Staging was completely fluid, and I particularly liked the formal entrance march of the chamberlains, who used passages of strong beats in the music to stop marching and hop in place instead.

Everybody else was good too, and another key was the instrumentalists down in the pit. The 20-person orchestra was so together that it sounded bigger, and conductor Monroe Kanouse had real mastery of the music. It's not top-drawer work of Sullivan's any more than it is of Gilbert's, but in these hands all the songs were at least pleasant, none felt tiresome or superfluous, and some were even slightly catchy. In general it was as good as any other lesser Sullivan works I've heard, which means better than any other operettas I know.

During the run, the Lamplighters recorded it, and when it's released it'll be for sale here. You'll miss the acting and staging and pacing, and the delighted audience reaction, but the songs will be as well-performed as they possibly could be.

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