Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Alameda, California: Home of the U.S.S. Hornet Museum, the Oakland Raiders training camp and - would you believe it? - center of the Gilbert & Sullivan universe.
No kidding. Once upon a time, the Mother Church for G&S devotees was England's D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which was founded by Gilbert and Sullivan themselves.
But D'Oyly Carte went belly-up in 1982, and since then the best G&S company in the world has been the Bay Area's own Lamplighters. (More about that later.)
And an astounding 22 members of the company live in Alameda.
"We call it 'Lamplighter Island,'" says Jonathan Spencer, who is the very model of a modern major general in The Lamplighters' sparkling new production of "The Pirates of Penzance."
"It's the small town atmosphere," says Chris Shuford, who plays the Sergeant of Police (and brings down the house with "A Policeman's Lot Is Not A Happy One"). "That, plus the fact there's actually sunshine, which is a big improvement over Daly City, where I used to live."
I met Jonathan and Chris at the Café Au Lait, a popular Alameda hangout, and we talked about why Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, and "The Pirates" in particular, are so much fun - both for them as performers and for me as a listener.
"Part of it is the sweet-and-sour factor," says Jonathan. "Gilbert's lyrics are so witty and tart, and Sullivan's music is so sweet and lush, they complement each other perfectly."
And "The Pirates" is a perfect example. I mean, who could resist a love song like this?
"Oh is there not one maiden here/Whose homely face and bad complexion/Has caused all hope to disappear/Of ever winning man's affection?/If such a one, if such there be/I swear by Heaven's arch above you/If you will cast your eyes on me/However plain you be, I'll love you."
Throw in bumbling policemen, tenderhearted pirates and beautiful young maidens who wouldn't dream of marrying anybody who isn't rich. Virtue is charming, vice is intriguing, and there's a surprise happy ending - all set to some of Gilbert's funniest lyrics and Sullivan's most hummable music. Who could ask for anything more?
"The Pirates" will weigh anchor at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek July 29-31, followed by performances at the Lincoln Theater Napa Valley Aug. 7-8, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts Aug. 14-15, the Novellus Theater at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco Aug. 19-22, and the Bankhead Theater in Livermore Aug. 27-29. Visit www.lamplighters.org for more information.
As I said, you'll see the best Gilbert & Sullivan company in the world.
How do I know? Well, a few years ago the UC Berkeley campus played host to the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, which is usually held in Buxton, England.
Since I live in Berkeley, I was in hog heaven, listening to Gilbert & Sullivan companies from all over the globe.
They all were good, but it was almost embarrassing how much better The Lamplighters were than everyone else. The sopranos sang sweeter, the orchestra was tighter and the patter songs were funnier. Most important, the actors actually acted, rather than standing around waiting for their turn to sing.
If you've never had the great pleasure of becoming a G&S addict - as I obviously am - this production of "The Pirates" is a perfect place to start. Enjoy!