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COMEDY AND TRAGEDY
17 January 2005
After we moved to Davis and I settled into life in the suburbs, I always liked to say that whenever we went to San Francisco, my "city genes" kicked in. I moved faster, felt more alive, and just acted completely different than I did wandering around the then-quiet streets of Davis. For years and years after we moved here, those city genes kicked in every time I got out of a car in San Francisco.
We've now been here over 30 years and the city genes have died. I've become one of those people who don't like to go into the big city if I can avoid it. I don't like the traffic, the noise, the crowds, the incessant parade of street people asking for money. I don't like worrying about whether someone is going to jostle me and snatch my purse. It saddens me to realize that I no longer feel alive when I get into San Francisco, but rather eager to head out of the city and back home again.
Yesterday we went to The City for a Lamplighter production of Yeomen of the Guard. We went in early, parked in a downtown garage and went looking for someplace to eat. We had to run the gamut of street people, each competing with each other to get us to buy one of their Street Sheets, the newspaper produced by and for the homeless.
We fought the crowds crossing the street to go to a sports bar for dinner, but when we got to the restaurant, there wasn't a table to be had, so we ended up at Mel's Diner, across the street. Mel's is a throwback to the diners of the 50s. We sat at a table under a photo of what must have been a teenaged Richard Dreyfus and next to a juke box playing Bo Diddily and Sam Cooke songs.
We lingered over dinner and then walked to the Yerba Buena Center for the performance, stopping en route to give a donation to a guy who said he was collecting for the local Catholic Church and its work for the homeless. He was a fast talker and we probably were duped as far as his real motives, but we figured that he probably needed the money anyway--and Walt said that it was more satisfying than plunking $2 into a slot machine in Reno.
We met familiar faces in the lobby of the theatre and had a good time visiting until nearly curtain time.
Yeomen of the Guard might not be a familiar name to those who aren't Gilbert & Sullivan aficionados, but there are so many memories tied up in that show for me. It's the only G&S operetta with a tragic ending and it was fitting that it should have been during a run of that show in 1986 when our Gilbert died.
The "patterman" character in Yeoman is Jack Point, a jester in love with his partner, a young singer. When she leaves him to marry Colonel Fairfax, Point is devastated and dies of a broken heart. In the hands of the right actor, this can be one of the most poignant moments in all the Gilbert & Sullivan canon.
Gilbert's Jack Point was legendary. That role and the role of Koko in The Mikado were the ones for which he was best known and everyone agreed that he was the definitive Jack Point. When he felt he was getting too old to be on the stage and moved into the orchestra pit, as the musical director/conductor, it was a loss to Lamplighter audiences who missed the chance to see him perform.
When Gilbert himself died of a heart attack, it was the perfect time to go--in the middle of the most emotional of all the operettas (he always did know how to make an effective exit!). As I sat there tonight, watching Monroe Kanouse conducting the Lamplighter orchestra, I was reminded of Gilbert's memorial service, where they played that same overture, without a conductor.
As the curtain opened tonight, there were all those people in the costumes designed years and years ago--probably for that same 1986 production--by John Gilkerson, who was to die of AIDS a couple of years after Gilbert died. The costumes look as good today as they did back then.
As I watched the show, I thought back on all the productions of Yeomen that we've seen over the years. Professional productions, amateur productions, productions in San Francisco, in Davis, in England, and in other places.
I thought of the most horrible production I ever saw. The production that made me the angriest. The performers may have been good. I no longer remember. What was horrible was the director's vision of the show.
This director had obviously never seen this show before and assumed that since Gilbert & Sullivan operettas were funny, that this one was too. That vision absolutely ruined the show.
In the first place, Jack Point, who is supposed to be a jester who doesn't know where his next meal is coming from, was played by an actor who was far from emaciated looking. I seem to remember he was a good actor, but completely wrong for the part visually.
The worst part, however, came in Act 2. There are two songs, back to back. One is called "A private buffoon..." and it is the jester's bittersweet tale of what it's really like to be a professional funny man, summed up nicely in the sardonic line, "they don't blame you, as long as you're funny," indicating that no matter what tragedies may have occurred in the jester's life that day, he is still expected to entertain his employers.
The music for the song is somewhat sprightly, in stark contrast to the meaning of the words. And it is followed by a song called "Tell a tale of cock and bull," which is a funny song with Jack Point attempting to teach a dolt how to be a jester.
Well, this director took the first song and turned it into a very funny number, with the singers doing funny dances that had the audience laughing, while I sat there in shock, realizing that the audience was so enjoying the funny choreography that they were missing entirely the point of the song--which is that a jester's life is not a happy one. The song is supposed to set the audience up for the tragic ending.
But the ending of this production was not tragic either. There is a big chorus number as Elsie gets her Leonard and turns away from Jack Point, who then is supposed to "fall senseless" at her feet (there has always been debate about whether he actually dies or whether he just faints--the Lamplighters have always played it as a death--Gilbert used to adjust his makeup throughout the show so that the closer it came to the end, the more believable it was that Point's health was so fragile that Elsie's marriage would cause him to die of a broken heart).
In this terrible production, Point did indeed fall to the ground but then, as the chorus paraded off stage, he propped himself up on one elbow and made a grinning face at the audience, leaving them with a laugh.
The director had totally missed the point of the show and it has frustrated me for years that when the review came out, that was not mentioned. So now I'm a reviewer and I'm mentioning it. I won't say where the production was put on, but I feel much better now that I've finally gone on record as saying that I have seen a lot of bad/disappointing productions in my day, but I have never seen one that made me as angry as this production of Yeomen of the Guard did.
Fortunately, the production tonight, directed by my friend Barbara Heroux, whose productions are always first rate, would have earned four stars from this critic, if I had been reviewing it. It was simply excellent and so much fun to see many "old timers" returning to the cast. It's been so long that anyone I actually know was on the stage. Best of all, Jack Point, played by long-time Lamplighter patterman, Rick Williams, was outstanding (and I don't give out that compliment lightly, since Jack Point is one of my favorite characters in all of Gilbert & Sullivan). Rick can sometimes be a bit over the top, but this performance was spot-on and his death was very touching. (Or as my friend Barb says, "he died good.")
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