William S. Gilbert (Libretto) & Arthur Sullivan (Music)
|Jennifer Mitchell & F. Lawrence Ewing|
Those master geniuses of satire, rhyming lyrics, and operatic melodies -- William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan – primed their pens and aimed their alliterative arrows at a target too conceited and flamboyant for them to ignore in the 1880s of England: the Aesthetic Movement. Forsaking social and moral themes in poetry, art, and design, the aesthetics were more focused on art for art’s sake, with much self-indulgence and pretentiousness gilding the edges of overall shallow substance. Taking the world by storm at a time the Industrial Age was still hanging on with its steam and smoke, the Aesthetic Movement became for Gilbert and Sullivan a means to make unabashed fun through their 1881 hit, Patience, of any and all fast-moving, soon-to-die trends and crazes.
While most modern audience members will probably have to turn to Google to identify this late nineteenth-century movement that at the time led even U.S. audiences to flock to witness the likes of Oscar Wilde, who among us cannot relate to fashions and fads that today rise, sweep the world, and then fade seemingly in the time it takes for a just a few searches on the Worldwide Web? (Anyone still chasing Pokemons in crowds of thousands these days?) Lamplighters Music Theatre revives Patience for the fourteenth time, fully realizing the timeless ubiquity and relevance of this over-the-top-silly poke at our human tendency to jump unabashedly onto the latest hot rage.
|F. Lawrence Ewing|
Decked in deeply colored velvet dresses with brocaded designs and puffed sleeves, a bevy of maidens all with long curls hanging artfully (so they think) onto their shoulders sing, “Twenty love-sick maidens we, and we die for love of thee.” The “thee” for whom these harmonic ladies pine is a foppish poet, Reginald Bunthorne, who himself is decked in much-decorated, purple-velvet flair. As he moves about the adoring ladies, he poses at every step with extended arms and cocked, beret-covered head, waiting for all to admire and swoon. But to the maidens’ collective dismay, this self-indulged poet only has eyes for a lowly milkmaid named Patience – one who wants nothing to do with his egocentric ways or his shallow words of poetry. This beautiful, common-sense-minded maid also has no idea why everyone seems so obsessed with love, a concept she realizes that she does not understand at all.
That is, until she comes across a new arrival to the town, a most-perfect (and he knows it) specimen of a man, Archibald Grosvenor. While he too is an aesthetic poet, his velvet knickers and tendency to look at himself in the mirror seem not at all vacuous but totally idyllic to her – especially when she discovers that he is the only boy for whom she ever did feel love (at the ripe age of four). However, because Lady Angela has already educated her that love must be completely unselfish (and therefore given as a duty), Patience laments that she cannot love this ‘perfect’ Archibald because it would be selfish to deny him to the rest of the maiden world. Her ‘duty’ thus leads her to submit herself, quite unwillingly, to the prancing, pompous Bunthorne as his betrothed.
And thus the stage is totally set for a Gilbert and Sullivan story -- laced with both silly romance and tongue-in-cheek ridicule -- to play itself out with its fast and furious lyrics, stage-filling choruses, and memorable ballads. That is particularly true when this talented, G&S-experienced cast of forty is stage-directed by Barbara Heroux and musically directed by David Möschler, both always looking for ways to milk dry the embedded humor while honoring with full reverence the musical prowess of this famous duo.
From the moment she appears and sings, “I cannot tell what this love may be,” Jennifer Mitchell as Patience proves her ability to skip easily, lightly, and with full gaiety through her sung notes, jumping to the high note challenges Sullivan has provided her with true clarity and purity. She exudes a joyful personality but also a stubborn air when it comes to following Lady Angela’s singular definition of love as an “unselfish duty.” When joined in song with her true love Archibald -- but one out of the question to pursue -- her flute-like vocals match and blend exquisitely with Samuel Faustine’s boyish tenor. His Archibald Grosvenor is laced full of foolish narcissism and ego-centric pride; but Mr. Faustine brings enough innocence in his dimpled, blushed cheeks and ample charm in his overall manner that both we and Patience are quick to forgive him and to categorize him differently from the more outlandish Bunthorne.
Nothing exemplifies the character of Reginald Bunthorne (nor the comic genius of Gilbert) more than the poem he recites to the hovering flock of ridiculously enraptured maidens, entitled “Hollow! Hollow! Hollow!”
“What time the poet hath hymned
The writhing maid, lithe-limbed,
Quivering on amaranthine asphodel,
How can he paint her woes,
Knowing, as well he knows,
That all can be set right with calomel?”
F. Lawrence Ewing is nothing short of superb as he twirls every ‘r,’ spits out consonants with lambasted power, and elongates vowels with flitter and lilt. Each word he speaks becomes an excuse to overact in heavy dramatization, using his every limb and tall stature to the fullest for his frozen-in-space silhouettes. With hand often curled to his forehead in a ‘woe is me’ stance, he rattles off Gilbert’s complicated lyrics and alliterations in song without a pause with his oh-so-aesthetic, over-sized voice -- more full of bloom than any garden of sweet-smelling daisies. Truly, Mr. Ewing is a Bunthorne supreme.
When Bunthorne is joined in duet with Lady Jane -- a buxom admirer no longer a maiden nor without some aging spread of build -- the two duel to see which can be funnier in delivering a ditty containing such esteemed lyrics as “Sing Booh to you, Pooh, pooh to you.” As Jane, Anne Hubble’s deep, rich voice rings as true as her ability to be a comic delight, discordantly playing and plucking a hauled-around cello while -- with full-body dramatics and a voice seeking the pity of anyone in ear’s distance –singing, “Sad is that woman’s lot who, year by year, sees, one by one, her beauties disappear.”
Many more quirky and singular characters dot the story and stage. Charles Martin as Colonel Calverley is both buffoon and a bass-voiced wonder as he spits out complex lyrics as fast as bullets with targeted accuracy. Rob Cadwallader’s lyrical tenor voice and Ben Porter’s clarion chords join the Colonel as Duke and Major respectively in an uproarious, crowd-pleasing trio. With lilies and newly donned velvet attire, they do all they can as dragoon soldiers to take on the prissy poses and postures of the aesthetics (looking even more farcical that the authentic poets they try their best to imitate). As Ladies Angela, Saphir, and Ella, Cary Ann Rosko, Michele Schroeder, and Lacy Harms bring their own jocular touches to their aesthetic carryings-on while also showing off their distinctly impressive voices.
As in almost any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, toe-tapping is difficult to avoid when the choruses march onto stage -- particularly the males in military uniforms of some sort. The red-and-gold attired Dragoons of Impatience simulate in-place march and military routines with full pomp and precision while singing in rousing hurrahs, “The soldiers of our Queen are linked in friendly tether; upon the battle scene they fight the foe together.” But when confronted with maidens who have rejected their prior-promised engagements in order to fawn over Bunthorne, the troop sings in shocked airs, “Instead of slyly peering at us ... endearing us ... they’re actually sneering at us, fleering at us, jeering at us.” And when the maidens join them in full-chorus numbers, the entire auditorium is aglow with full and glorious harmony even as the three dozen or so singers are often also engaged in full-swing antics of hilarity.
Many of the laughs and the meanings of this long-ago, period story come from the meticulously created costumes by Melissa Wortman and by the wig and hair designs of Kerry Riger-Kuhn. Peter Crompton’s many oversized scenic elements emphasize the excessiveness of the aesthetic movement while the more classic beauty of his Act Two scenery of majestic columns of antiquity predicts that the wide-swinging pendulum of excess is bound eventually to return to more tried, true, and enduring values. Finally, Pamela Carey leads the twenty-piece orchestra that tackles Sullivan’s score with both the boldness and sensitivity required to master all the moods within.
Once again, the venerable Lamplighters Music Theatre brings to the Bay Area audiences north, central, and south a Gilbert and Sullivan favorite that feels fresh in its undertaking and contemporary in its themes while still honoring its original, near one-hundred-twenty-five-year-old format and language. More importantly, Lamplighters continues to do what it has always done best: Make great music.
Rating: 5 E
Patience continues with double casting of the lead roles February 10-12, 2017 at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, Walnut Creek and February 18-19. 2017 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available online at http://lamplighters.org/season/tickets.html or by calling 925-943-7469 (Walnut Creek) or 650-903-6000 (Mountain View).