Lamplighters Music Theatre Celebrates 60th Anniversary with “The Sorcerer”

Chris Uzelac as John Wellington Wells. Photo by David Allen, Joanne Kay, 2012

Chris Uzelac as John Wellington Wells. Photo by David Allen, Joanne Kay, 2012

By Keith Johnson

San Francisco Informer

What happens when a hapless Englishman causes a love spell to be cast over an entire town, resulting in the most absurd romantic combinations imaginable? Find out as Lamplighters Music Theatre presents Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Sorcerer” March 16 at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts and March 23-24 at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater.

“The Sorcerer” is an early collaboration between librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan whose later, more famous productions include “H.M.S. Pinafore”, “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado”.

“This is a very rare opportunity to see ‘The Sorcerer’,” said new Artistic Director Rick Williams. “The last time we did it was 17 years ago and we’re only doing three performances. If you have the slightest interest in Gilbert and Sullivan you should take this opportunity because it is a rarely-performed gem.”

“‘The Sorcerer’ is about a young man so very much in love with his fiancée that he wants everybody else in town to be just as much in love as he is,” said retiring Artistic Director Barbara Heroux. “So he hires a sorcerer to come down from London and spike the tea at his engagement party with a love potion.”

Everybody then falls asleep and upon waking instantly falls in love with the first person they see.

“So of course all the wrong people wake up and see all the wrong people and Alexis, our young man, has caused havoc while meaning to cause joy and love and ‘happily ever after’,” Heroux said. “But of course it’s a very proper love potion so it doesn’t work on married people. That’s the kind of silly humor that is very typical of Gilbert and Sullivan.”

“‘The Sorcerer’ is a typical Gilbert plot. It’s a topsy-turvy take on love,” said Williams. “There is also a definite joke about the class system because at the beginning it’s very obvious that the lower class people and the upper class people live very different lives and certainly would never, ever be involved romantically with each other. But of course once the love potion is introduced into the mix, that’s out the window. I think that Gilbert’s take on the problems of people looking at each other differently because of their wealth or position is just as relevant today as it was in the mid-19th century.”

“They were written 150 years ago but they continue to be relevant, they continue to be funny, and they continue to be very intelligent,” said Managing Director Sarah Vardigans about Gilbert and Sullivan’s work.

“It’s a silly kind of humor,” Heroux said. “It’s very British and it’s very light, very word-based. Somebody who saw one for the first time recently said to me ‘Now I know where Monty Python comes from.'”

The humor’s presentation is key to a Gilbert and Sullivan performance and an important hallmark of The Lamplighters style.

“A lot of Gilbert and Sullivan companies try to make them tongue-in-cheek and slapstick and at Lamplighters we don’t do that,” Vardigans emphasized. “We take the humor very seriously. Even though they’re ridiculous buffoons, the characters on stage don’t think that they’re ridiculous buffoons. So they take themselves seriously and the audience laughs at them but they don’t laugh at themselves, and that’s a very fine difference.”

“That’s what makes it funny,” Heroux said. “If you start making fun of it while you’re doing it, it kills it. So the Lamplighters style is to respect the material, to always keep in mind that the more seriously you treat it, the funnier it will be.”

Lamplighters Music Theatre is currently celebrating its 60th anniversary season. Founded in 1952 as a small volunteer organization, it is today a professional nonprofit theater company recognized as one of the world’s preeminent producers of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. According to their website, a Lamplighters audience can expect to be treated to lavish costumes and sets, live orchestra, excellent comic acting, and gorgeous unamplified singing that showcases the beauty and purity of the human voice

“We don’t use microphones so it’s natural sound, increasingly rare these days,” Heroux said, noting that amplification can flatten the sound of the human voice while creating shrill highs and booming lows. “This music was not written to be amplified. It was written in the 1880s when they didn’t have mikes and it was supposed to be just sung in the theater naturally. We’re trying to keep that alive.”

Lamplighters also strives to keep the music theater tradition alive through its educational programs.

“One of them is an [in-school] assembly program based on ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’,” Vardigans said. “We have the ghosts of Gilbert and Sullivan go in and talk about how they created their works and they explain how the quick patter songs are related to rap songs of today. It’s actually pretty cool.”

Another program is a mini-residency in which Lamplighters staff help a school put on a fully-costumed condensed version of “The Pirates of Penzance”. Finally there is an intensive two-week summer program done in collaboration with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music that trains students to put on a fully-costumed presentation consisting of 30 scenes from various Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

“Those kids are usually hooked for life,” Vardigans said. “A lot of those kids end up on our stage in the chorus.”

“It’s amazingly fun and it’s a great way to meet people,” Heroux said about music theater training. “It’s a great way to gain confidence in yourself and learn skills both onstage and off. It’s a wonderful hobby to have and a wonderful career to have if it turns into that.”

To order tickets and learn more about Lamplighters Music Theatre, visit www.lamplighters.org.

As an introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan, Williams recommends the 1999 Mike Leigh movie “Topsy-Turvy” about the creation of “The Mikado”.

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One Response to Lamplighters Music Theatre Celebrates 60th Anniversary with “The Sorcerer”

  1. The Walnut Creek performance was wonderful. There’s a very creative live “silent movie” sequence during the overture. This deserves to be better known, and should not be missed.

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