A remarkable musical “coals to Newcastle” moment occurred in 1995, when San Francisco’s Lamplighters took the quintessentially English Gilbert & Sullivan “Princess Ida” to the G&S Festival in Buxton, England, and won major awards ahead of the many home teams.
This weekend, the 68-year-old musical theater troupe opens a new version of that 136-year-old operetta in San Francisco.
The Lamplighters performed “Ida” in 2013, the last time the 49ers were in the Super Bowl. To mark the coincidence, some tickets for Sunday’s performance at Yerba Buena Center for the Art’s Blue Shield Theater are $49.
The opera, based on a poem by Lord Tennyson, satirizes feminism, women’s education and Darwinian evolution, controversial matters in the 1880s, decades before only some women won the right to vote in 1919 in England.
Ida, a rebel in Victorian England, founds a women’s university, teaching that women are superior to men. The prince to whom she had been betrothed in infancy sneaks into the university with two friends, disguised as women students, and thereby hangs the tale.
Lamplighters once advertised the show as “Cross-dressing princes, and the feminists who love them.”
Lamplighters’ executive director Cheryl Blalock has long experience with “Ida,” having played the title role in two non-Lamplighter productions. Calling it “wonderful challenge” to portray an idealistic and regal character, she adds, “It was incredibly difficult to play this powerful, passionate person and have her forced to give up her dreams of a women’s university and a life of her choice because her women failed her and her brothers lost the battle for her. It felt like a tragedy, not joyful at all.”
To the rescue: Barbara Heroux, former Lamplighters’ executive director who directs and wrote this new version, making changes to maintain the original’s humor yet offer a plot “pleasing with our” 21st century views.
For today’s audiences, there is much to cheer in Ida’s Castle Adamant, where she presides over a school where “maiden fair radiant beings” are shielded against men, even the best of whom “though well behaved, at best is only a monkey shaved.”
Heroux — who has appeared onstage in choruses, small roles and lead roles, has directed every G&S show (many more than once) and helped write at least 30 of the annual original-book galas — says Lamplighters has been a part of her life since 1974.
Her G&S experience began with being a fairy in Iolanthe, with the task of teasing the handsome actor playing Private Willis: “My character’s job was to get him to break his stone-faced, frozen sentry pose. The rest is history, we’ve been married for almost 34 years.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by Lamplighters Music Theatre
Where: Blue Shield of California Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.
When: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb.2
Tickets: $31 to $82; terrace seats $49 on Sunday
Note: Performances also are at Lesher Center in Walnut Creek on Feb. 8-9 and at Mountain View’s Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 22-23.