Theater review by Elizabeth Warnimont
Special to The Herald
The Lamplighters of San Francisco opened Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus” to an appreciative crowd Friday at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek. Maya Kherani especially shone in her Lamplighters debut as Adele, a chamber maid who dreams of someday becoming an actress. Kherani has what it takes for this typical Lamplighters fare: a strong, clear voice for the troupe’s signature unamplified singing, a bright stage presence and a genuine-feeling sense of humor that comes through in her every move.
A Lamplighters show is always a delight, and “Fledermaus” is no exception. Renowned music director George Cleve leads a tight but spirited orchestra that is consistently responsive to the action onstage. The costumes, designed by Judy Jackson McIlvaine, are extravagant and well coordinated, and longtime Lamplighters director Barbara Heroux puts it all together seamlessly for a thoroughly enjoyable theatrical event.
“Die Fledermaus,” or “The Bat,” tells the story of an intricate ruse orchestrated by a certain Dr. Falke (German for “falcon”), played by William Neely. His friend Gabriel (Actors Equity Association member Martin Lewis) had humiliated the doctor some years earlier by leaving him to awaken from a drunken stupor in some remote location while still in costume as a bat. For his revenge, the doctor arranges for Gabriel, his wife and a few other key figures to be invited to a royal ball — without any of them knowing that the others were also invited.
Falke has a handful of tricks up his sleeve, and party host Prince Orlofsky (played Friday by Anna Yelizarova) is in on the game. Imagine Gabriel’s surprise when he is introduced to a “renowned actress” who bears a striking resemblance to his chamber maid. If he finds that surprising, he’s in for a real shock when the identity of the mysterious countess who captures his heart is revealed to him the next day.
The music of “Fledermaus” is simple, lively and slightly comical, similar to the style of the Gilbert and Sullivan musicals that make up the bulk of the Lamplighters repertoire. The plot is also similar, involving playful ridicule and secret schemes. Tempting as it is, because it is such a fun story, I won’t spoil it here with any further details about the plot. What’s most important is that the central characters are rich and entertaining, and they are mostly well played by an impressive lineup of accomplished performers. A duet between Gabriel’s wife (Rosalinde, played Friday by Jennifer Ashworth) and her lover (Mark Kratz as Alfred) serves as an exceptional number in the first act.
The play is presented in three acts with two intermissions and runs a little more than two and a half hours. Most of the plot unfolds in the first act, so the other two suffer somewhat by comparison. The humor and energy of the songs alone, though, are enough to hold the audience’s attention to the end.
The libretto for “Fledermaus” has been translated from the German into English by several artists, beginning shortly after Strauss wrote it around the turn of the 20th century. The current Lamplighters production features a new English translation by librettist David Scott Marley, who was in attendance at the performance Friday. The new translation features entirely modern language and nicely follows the original, sprightly tone of the tale. Supertitles in large letters above the stage make it easy for audiences to follow along.
Some details from the original libretto are omitted in Marley’s adaptation. We don’t see the jailer, for example, chasing after Adele and her sister with a bucket and sponge in the third act. The production doesn’t suffer for the changes, though. Since the pace slows after the first act, it seems like additional minutes in acts two and three could easily drag the story’s momentum.
“Die Fledermaus” is a great, classic tale, set to beautiful music, and the Lamplighters succeed in bringing it to life in all its glory. You almost can’t miss with this one.
If You Go
“Die Fledermaus” will appear next at the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center in Yountville on Sunday, followed by performances in Livermore, Mountain View and San Francisco through Feb. 23. For more information and to purchase tickets, call the Lamplighters box office at 415-978-2787 or visit lamplighters.org.
Elizabeth Warnimont is a freelance writer specializing in the performing arts. She is also a substitute teacher for the Benicia Unified School District.