Saturday, February 3, 2018

"The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria"

The Gondoliers or, The King of Barataria
William S. Gilbert (Lyrics); Arthur Sullivan (Music)

Michael Desnoyers & Samuel Rabinowitz
As the orchestra’s “Overture” spreads notes that prance in joyful processions up and down hills and valleys of light-hearted scales, toes tap and heads nod with the beat.  Beaming smiles throughout the audience indicate that everyone is ready for another Lamplighters Music Theatre gift to the Bay Area to begin.  The sixty-six-year-old company continues its love affair with Gilbert and Sullivan to stage with glorious voice and bubbling enthusiasm the pair’s twelfth operetta of fourteen, The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria. 

Set in Venice to assuage the Victorian-Age censors of England, The Gondoliers is both light-hearted silliness and a none-too-subtle stab at monarchy rule while  a generous nod to the pursuit of love and marriage.  While missing some of the over-the-top hilarity of earlier works (like the ever-popular Pirates of Penzance or H.M.S. Pinafore), there is still much to elicit at least mild laughter in a topsy-turvy world where two handsome gondoliers suddenly find themselves co-ruling as kings the faraway, island kingdom, Barataria – and doing so as an “everyone’s equal” republic, from shoe-shiners and street sweepers to the monarchs themselves.

On their wedding day in Venice, the gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, are suddenly identified by a visiting delegation from Barataria (Duke, Duchess, daughter Castilda, and Don Alhambra, the frightful Grand Inquisitor) as the missing heir apparent of the kingdom.  That is, at least one of them is the crowned prince; but it is unclear at this point which.  It seems that one was whisked away at birth by the Grand Inquisitor after the baby’s royal father became (shudder) a “Wesleyan Methodist” (“of the most bigoted and persecuting type”).  The infant was given to a lowly but kindly gondolier in Venice to rear side-by-side with his own son of the same age.  However, this keeper of the would-be king drank too much and soon forgot which boy was which.  Only the then-attending wet-nurse may now be able to identify the real prince; but until the Inquisitor convinces her to spill the beans (through the “persuasive influence of the torture chamber” if necessary), Marco and Giuseppe are told they must sail to the now king-less Barataria to rule jointly until the rightful one of them can be identified as the new monarch.

Patricia Westley
Not only will the real prince acquire a throne, he will also gain the hand of a wife, the now grown and beautiful Casilda, to whom he was married back in Barataria at the ripe old age of six months. The problem is, both Marco and Giuseppe have just minutes before walked down the aisle to wive peasant girls, Gianetta and Tessa.  Further, Casilda herself, besides being indignant that she was secretly married without out her infant consent, is actually now in love with the Duke’s Attendant, Luiz.  Shocked at their sudden standing as royalty and a little sad they must leave their new wives (but not enough to refuse the fame and possible fortune awaiting one of them), the two former gondoliers and now princes invite all the men of Venice to come with them to become members of their administration, all of course equal with the kings themselves (“Sing high, sing low, wherever they go, they shall all equal be”). 

As the town empties of its men, Gilbert and Sullivan have turned another of their imaginary worlds totally upside down with the wildest and most improbable of stories --  a tall tale told through stage-filling choruses, lovely arias, and echoing duets with many lyrics often sung in alliterations so furiously rapid to make the head spin.  Phil Lowery directs this talented, full-voiced cast of forty-plus clearly with a twinkle in his eye and an ability to keep a brisk-enough flow for the rather long evening of almost three hours (including one intermission).  Music Director Baker Peeples not only ensures musical excellence pervades every one of Sullivan’s never easy-to-sing numbers (difficulty often in direct proportion to how silly the song is itself), but he also conducts with great skill the orchestra of twenty as it sends Sullivan’s score soaring through the atmosphere.  Peter Crompton’s large scenic pieces full of bright colors and bold markings bring a storybook quality to the settings of Venice and Baratoria.  But the scenes, beautifully lit by Brittany Mellerson, truly come to full life due to the delightfully hued peasant and majestically woven royal costumes designed by Judy Jackson. 

To a person, cast members sing with fully expressed ebullience, vocal clarity, and amazing ability to be understood, no matter the lyrical challenges Gilbert throws their ways.  Certain members certainly stand out and deserve a special bow. 

As one of the two peasant brides, Tessa, Whitney Steele time and again wows with a jubilant mezzo-soprano voice that smiles full of its own beauty as she skips through notes lightly and with ease, such as in “When A Merry Maiden Marries.”  Her betrothed and maybe king, Giuseppe (Samuel Rabinowitz), glides with a solid sureness of his fine baritone voice as he rapidly spits out the mad lyrics of “Rising Early in the Morning” in which he describes a typical day as monarch (“Oh the philosophers may sing of the troubles of a King, but of pleasures there are many and or worries there are none”).  The tenor Michael Desnoyers also reigns supreme as Guiseppe’s buddy and co-king whenever his Marco is called upon to voice his views of either being a lover or a ruler, with his voice sliding high into the upper regions with ease and purity. 

F. Lawrence Ewing & Cary Ann Rosko
Two of the best duets of the evening (“O, Rapture” and “There Was a Time”) are delivered by Casilda (Patricia Westley) and her secret lover, Luiz (Patrick Hagen), with the two bringing a beautiful blend of their slightly reverberating, fully expressive voices that separate to highlight individual vocal character and then combine to make the sum even greater than the parts.  Casilda and Luiz earlier join her parents, the Duke and Duchess, in one of the evening’s other highlights as they arrive on Venice’s shores and describe their harried journey (“From the Sunny Spanish Shore”) and their purpose in coming (“In Enterprise of Marital Kind”).  In fact, whenever F. Lawrence Ewing and Cary Ann Rosko enter the scene as the pompous pair of parents, hilarity rises as they call upon their excellent baritone and contralto voices to take on fluttering, comic flairs.

Finally, as the Grand Inquisitor -- sometimes scary but only in a silly sort of way – Charles Martin comes close to stealing the show in “I Stole a Prince” when he sends his lower-toned voice tripping over notes as if he were skipping over rocks in a bubbling stream, rhyming his words with much aplomb and punctuating his message with eyes that round so wide to be like full moons.   His voice rises as if it originated from somewhere in a cavernous, back-throat region.  His head then cocks back with full haughtiness as he sings “There Lived a King” as if he were singing about himself.

While Gilbert and Sullivan may have been winding down their game a bit when they wrote The Gondoliers, there is much to like in what has become one of their more popular operettas, even if it does seem that the story may stretch just a bit too long at times.  Lamplighters certainly has made a great case why its revival is still merited in a production that sparkles with vocal gymnastics as the cast triumphantly conquer murderously difficult lyrics with vocals overall supreme.

Rating: 4 E

The Gondoliers or, The King of Barataria continues at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco through February 4, 2018; at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, February 9-11; and at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, February 17-18.  Tickets for all performance and venues are available at

Photos by David Allen

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