Monday, October 22, 2012

Misty Water-Colored Memories

I don't think I've ever cried more in a funny show than I did today -- sad tears, happy tears, emotional tears, good tears -- and I was not alone.  I was glad we were alone in box seats where for once I could feel comfortable getting out a handkerchief and wiping my eyes, though why I should have felt uncomfortable at all I don't know, since everybody else was doing it.

Tonight was the 60th anniversary Lamplighters Gala show and what a tribute it was to the history of this theater company which has been a part of my life, sometimes a big part, sometimes a small part, since the early 1960s.

The emotion started before we even entered the theater.  There was a huge silent auction going on in the lobby and there was our friend Will Connolly's guitar being auctioned off.

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Will, who died in April, had performed with the Lamplighters for many, many years and his brother donated the guitar for the auction.  It went for much more than it was worth, but it was one of those 'priceless' items that you pay for the sentimental value.

But then I was walking across the lobby and saw, in front of me, my friend Ann Pool MacNab.  Ann and Orva Hoskinson founded the Lamplighters in 1952.   She and I became friends while we interviewed her for the first Lamplighter history.  We have remained friends all these years, though mostly the pen pal kind. We have been through a lot of emotional ups and downs together. She had told me in her last letter that she would not be attending the Gala, so to see her and her 8' tall husband Adrian (he's not really 8' tall; he just looks that way...and with the distinguished look of age, this Welshman looks more like Prince Charles every day!).   I was just so thrilled that they had come and insisted that Walt take a picture of us, since I don't think we have ever had a photo taken together before.

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She told me that Orva was going to be at the show too, as was the great contralto Marcia Hunt.  Suddenly this became a show that I was not only looking forward to seeing, but was excited to see.

The tears started very soon after the show began.  To try to explain a plot in these shows is pretty silly, but after the set up they did a slide show of the past 60 years.  The first picture was of sweet young soprano Peggy Overshiner, Ann's good friend, who died several years ago of Alzheimer's.  About a quarter way into the slide show I began to get weepy as I watched photo after photo of people who have left us, many too early, many of them my friends.  But it was a great retrospective of a huge body of work, a huge number of people whose paths have crossed the Lamplighters over the past sixty years.

Jane Hammett came out to sing "Refrain, audacious tar," from HMS Pinafore with a tenor I don't know (John E. Smyth).  I was immediately mentally catapulted back to 1984 and the non-Gilbert & Sullivan musical murder mystery, Something's Afoot.  I remember the search for the young ingenue had gone on for awhile and after the most recent audition, I asked Gilbert if he had cast anyone.  He lightly touched my arm, looked me in the eye and excitedly said "Yes. Jane Hammett."  I didn't know who Jane was at the time but Something's Afoot went on to be perhaps the most special show I ever worked on and I never see Jane without thinking fondly of that time before she was known.  She went on to tour with the touring Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera for three years and is now one of the Lamplighters directors, but I can't remember the last time I saw her on stage.

The songs continued, many of them popular numbers from previous Galas.  Rick Williams joined with Bill Neil and Chris Focht, all three friends, to do a number from The Mikado.  When Gilbert stepped down from performing and took up the baton as musical director, Rick Williams stepped into those patter roles that Gilbert had done so wonderfully and he made them his own.  But I never see him doing KoKo without seeing echoes of Gilbert's body language in his performance and it always makes me smile.

Geoff Colton reprised his magnificent "Major General Hospital" number from the 1983 Gala of the same name.  It was the first gala Gilbert and I wrote together, with David Witmer, the office PoohBah, and a soap opera fan who suggested the title. We had to convince Gilbert that the chorus could learn new words and could sing songs from shows not in the year's repertoire.  Major General Hospital was such a tremendous hit that it changed the course of Lamplighters Galas forever. In truth, compared to what the Gala writers do today, it was not a very good show, but it had some real bright spots and Geoff's "Major General Hospital" was definitely at the very top.

Shortly into the second act was a selection of the many "Three Little Maids" numbers that are a staple of Lamplighters galas.   There were "Three Little Nurses" from the 2005 Gala (The DaVinci Coda), "Three Weird and Ugly Hags" from 1992 (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's Excellent Adventure), "Three Little Maids auf Rhine" from Gilbert's last Gala in 1985, his magnum opus, A Star Is Born/The Ring of the Nederlander), and even The Kelly Boys performing "Three Little Outlaw Boys" from 1989's The Ballad of Buttercup Gap (which has my very favorite character name ever:  Benicia Martinez, which won't mean much if you don't live in Northern California!)

Then there were video clips.  I had known they were coming and I was 99.9% sure what would be shown, and I was right.  They started with Orva's incomparable performance as Reginald Bunthorne in the 1975 Patience, showed the indomitable June Wilkins' performance as Lady Jane in that same show, and Gilbert's final performance as KoKo in 1982, with Marcia Hunt as Katisha. 

There was a point at which our first Lamplighters History was used on stage and displayed prominently throughout the rest of the act.  THAT was a big surprise for Alison and me!  It's almost as if we had a part in the show as well.

There were more original numbers and then the chorus all gathered on stage to sing what has become a real Lamplighters anthem, "Eagle high" from Utopia Limited which the brilliant Barbara Heroux rewrote as "If we shadows have offended" to utilize Shakespeare's words.  It debuted in the 1992 Gala, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's Excellent Adventure and was a perfect soundtrack to the "In Memoriam" slide show, which brought more than a few more tears as familiar faces of old friends passed by.

Company president Jim MacIlvaine introduced every important person in the company, including children of Lamplighters families, kids who grew up in the company, many of whom went on to perform with the company. and even Lamplighters grandchildren. There were also members of the Lamplighters Young People's program, which trains young singers to perform G&S and can be a stepping stone into the Lamplighters regular company. 

The stage was filled, but two more people had to be acknowledged, Ann and Orva, who came out on stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.  I sat there, tears rolling down my cheeks and wondering what it must feel like to know that you just wanted to get together with a few friends in 1952 and sing Gilbert & Sullivan, and now to see how far it has come.  The first productions were held in someone's garage and the newspaper critic who came had to sit on the garage steps because the folding chairs were all full.  To look around the 1,000 seat Herbst Theater and see all these people, some of whom have been attending shows since the 1950s (we have been coming since the 1960s), to see all the people who have performed with the group, to see the outreach into the community and know that a new generation is developing a love of Gilbert and Sullivan, and to see the entire audience standing and cheering for you.   I just hope it filled Ann and Orva's hearts as much as it did mine! 

When it was all over, I took a photo of Ann and Orva.

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After the show I managed to get around to talk to just about everyone I wanted to (except for Sally Shunsky, my loyal journal reader, whom I was sorry to have missed).  Jill Thompson was still dabbing at her red-rimmed eyes.  Jill came to San Francisco from England in 1977 and just thought she'd help out as a dresser for this little Gilbert & Sullivan company. She never left and went on to spend many years on the Board of Directors.

Walt and I finally left to go get some dinner.  As we walked out of the building, we looked across the street at City Hall, all lit up in orange, for the Giants 6-1 win in the second to last NLCS playoff game.

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As we walked to the car, thinking about what a great day it had been, the only quote that could be used was from The Mikado:  "Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory."

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