Program design for the current Lamplighters production (from its event page on the Lamplighters Web site)
The English-Canadian comedian Anna Russell, best known reducing Richard Wagner’s four-opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung) to a 22-minute synopsis, used to muse over the fact that Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) operettas (words by W. S. Gilbert and music by Arthur Sullivan) were so popular in so many places around the world that it was a pity there were not more of them. This led to her other best-known routine, “How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera.” Over the last few years, Lamplighters Music Theatre, which specializes in the G&S operettas, has demonstrated that they could go even further over the comedic top than Russell could have possibly imagined.
The first sign of their outrageous capacity for comic imagination came in August of 2016 with The New Mikado: Una Commedia Musicale! Keeping Sullivan’s music intact, Gilbert’s text was rewritten to transfer the setting from exotic Japan to Renaissance Milan. This turned out to be one of those shows where you had to be careful not to laugh too long for fear of missing the joke in the next line. The production set a high bar for bringing new jokes to an old favorite, leaving Lamplighters fans wondering if this kind of lightning would ever strike again.
This afternoon at Herbst Theatre it did, with just as much impact as it had the first time, if not more. This time the point of departure was “Trial by Jury,” which was cleverly reworked from a one-act farce into a full-fledged two-act comedy. “Trial by Jury” was given a performance faithful to both the words of Gilbert and the music of Sullivan; but it was preceded by a words-only Prologue taking place in the courtroom in the moments before “Trial by Jury” begins. This provided ample opportunity for a catalogue of just about every lawyer joke imaginable and one throw-away audio gag based on the name of the defendant’s lawyer. (Those who get the sound of the lawyer’s name, Laura Norder, should immediately grasp the associated audio.)
The second act then picks up where the first left off: What happened after the Judge married Angelina to settle the case? This time it was Sullivan’s music that was overhauled, rather than a specific Gilbert libretto. The text, on the other hand, was created jointly by the Lamplighter’s production team. It found new ways to play on old plot devices (such as lost babies) while running amok over more literary sources than can be imagined. As might be guessed, this included playing fast and loose with authors such as Charlotte Brontë (Jennifer Mitchell plays a character named Jane Eyrehead) and Daphne du Maurier (the housekeeper Mrs. Danville, done as a drag act by Michael Grammer that would have done Charles Ludlam proud). However, there were any number of more recent cultural references coming from Broadway shows, movies, television, and (yes) the Rolling Stones. (Those who never experienced any of Ludlam’s work, which included his own take on Wagner’s Ring, will probably find Mel Brooks to be the best possible approximation.)
To repeat, this was all music by Sullivan; and it was probably the most extensive pastiche to come along since Charles Mackerras prepared the score for the ballet “Pineapple Poll.” Fifteen of the numbers from G&S productions were provided with new words in such a way that the music did not have to be altered. Indeed, every now and then a phrase or two from Gilbert would poke through, as in the rewrite of “Oh, why am I moody and sad?” from Ruddigore or the way in which “I am a maiden cold and stately” from Princess Ida turned into a trio of stablehands describing their work (“I am an ’ostler”). There is even a dance interlude in which the hornpipe from Ruddigore is turned over to a pair of Russian dancers.
The good news is that lightning will strike again tomorrow afternoon. According to the City Box Office event page, tickets are available in all sections of Herbst Theatre for tomorrow’s performance at 2 p.m. This is bound to make a memorable (not to mention hysterical) impression on anyone even somewhat acquainted with the G&S repertoire.