I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by how much fun The Lamplighters' sparkling new production of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" was when I saw it last weekend at the Lesher Theatre in Walnut Creek.

After all, "The Pirates" is probably G&S' funniest operetta, boasting some of their most hummable tunes, including "Poor Wandering One," "With Cat-like Tread" (whose tune was stolen for "Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here") and that perennial showstopper, "A Policeman's Lot Is Not A Happy One." Besides, The Lamplighters are the world's best G&S troupe. That distinction used to belong to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which was founded by Gilbert & Sullivan themselves. But, alas, D'Oyly Carte went belly-up in 1982, and since then The Lamplighters have been the class of the field.

But I was still taken aback by how much sheer pleasure they managed to cram into three hours. Kudos to the leads, particularly Chris Uzelac as Samuel, Sonia Gariaeff as Ruth and especially Ben Brady as the Pirate King.

With his strong voice, commanding presence and impeccable comic timing, this young man -- he's only 23 -- bestrides the stage like no Pirate King I've seen since Kevin Kline. He's going to be a big star.

And all praises to the great Lawrence Ewing, who has played the Major General so many times he practically owns the part, but he has never played it the same way twice.

But the best thing in the show was the chorus, who are usually overlooked in theater reviews. The chorus has always been one of the Lamplighters' strong suits, but this time they took it to a whole new level.


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Which means the real stars are the stage director, Jane Erwin Hammett, and the music director/conductor, Baker "Little Bo" Peeples, one of the finest conductors in the Bay Area.

Under his baton, the orchestra was tighter than the Rolling Stones, and the chorus' harmonies were tighter than the Beach Boys. It was exquisitely beautiful, especially when they sang "Hail, Poetry." Ahh! It doesn't get any better than that.

As for Hammett, I won't spoil it for you by revealing the many hilarious bits of stage business she gave the actors to do, but trust me: you're in for a rollicking good time.

The Lamplighters have evolved over the years as they keep improving the product. Today, most of them are professional opera singers.

But a few are throwbacks to the old days -- extremely talented amateurs such as Steve Goodman, who played the Sergeant of Police (and very nicely, too). His day job is professor of medicine and associate dean at Stanford.

Finally, I was especially heartened by the large number of kids in the audience, and they seemed to be having a great time, too. After the final encore, Ewing stepped to the edge of the stage and addressed them directly.

"You are the audience of the future, " he told them, "and the performers of the future, too." "The Pirates of Penzance" has finished its run in Walnut Creek, but you can see it through Aug. 17 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, just a short walk from the Montgomery Street BART station. Catch it if you can.

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.