John Gilkerson died 24 years ago, but he's not forgotten.

Not at Skyline High in Oakland, where he and his best friend, Tom Hanks, starred in a student production of "My Fair Lady." (Hanks played Henry Higgins; Gilkerson played Col. Pickering.)

Nor at Children's Fairyland, where he was a puppeteer (trained by the great Lewis Mahlman himself), costume designer and the park's artistic director from 1976 to 1980.

And certainly not at The Lamplighters, the Bay Area's award-winning Gilbert & Sullivan company, which is trotting out the costumes he created 30 years ago for a sparkling new production of "Iolanthe" that opens next weekend in Walnut Creek.

"We're updating them a little," says costume designer Christina Weiland, an Oaklander like Gilkerson. "Last month, I got an email from our director, Barbara Heroux, that said, 'Don't freak out, but I have this idea of the fairies looking wilder and more feral this time. What do you think?'

"I loved the idea, so I ripped the tutus and spray-painted the fairy wings outdoors to let the wind create random patterns. But it's basically still his design. I hope he would approve."

This is the first Lamplighters gig for Weiland, a longtime performer and designer at the Woodminster Musical Theater in Oakland and the Circus Center in San Francisco, where she gained a reputation as someone who can create costumes that nobody else can figure out how to make, such as the dancing tableware in "Beauty and the Beast."


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"I can't believe how beautiful Sullivan's music is," she says. "I find myself humming along while I'm doing the costume fittings because the music is so gorgeous."

And that's the secret of their success: a clever combination of sweet and sour.

Like all G&S operettas, "Iolanthe" appears to be nothing but innocent merriment, but if you listen to Gilbert's words you realize it's actually a savage attack on the British class system. But the edge is taken off by the lush beauty of Sullivan's music. The result is some of the wittiest -- and loveliest -- songs you'll ever hear.

Only Gilbert & Sullivan could write this stirring patriotic anthem: "When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte/As every schoolchild can tell/The House of Lords/Throughout the war/Did nothing in particular/And did it very well!"

And only The Lamplighters can perform this material in the deadpan manner that makes it so much funnier than if they had given it the nudge-nudge-wink-wink treatment.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: The Lamplighters are the best Gilbert & Sullivan company in the world, period. I've seen lots of others, and they basically are nothing but a bunch of singers standing around on the stage looking bored, waiting for their turn to sing their song -- known in the theater trade as "park and bark."

Not The Lamplighters. Yes, the singers all have operatic-quality voices, even in the chorus. And yes, the orchestra is tighter than the Rolling Stones. But in addition, The Lamplighters actually act!

"Iolanthe" will play Aug. 2-4 at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek; the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Aug. 10-11; the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Aug. 16-18; and the Bankhead Theater in Livermore, Aug. 24-25. Check it out.

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.