Victorian Lyric Opera Company The Pirates of PenzanceBy Bob Ashby • Jun 16th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Victorian Lyric Opera Company: (Info) (Web)
F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, Rockville, MD
Through June 22nd
2:25 with intermission
$24/$20 Seniors/$16 Students (Plus Fees)
Reviewed June 14th, 2014
Occasionally a production of a familiar show can completely change how that it is perceived and performed. Such was Joseph Papp’s 1980 Central Park production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, in which Kevin Kline reinvented the role of the Pirate King as an athletic, comic swashbuckler. Coming at a time when the venerable D’Oyly Carte company was on its last legs, artistically as well as financially (having seen some of their touring productions here in 1976 and 1978, I can testify to the former), Papp’s production reinvigorated Pirates for late 20th century audiences.
Like any innovation, however, a groundbreaking production of a show can evolve into old hat. For most of 30 years, directors of Pirates productions seemed to feel compelled to replicate the Papp production, even those parts of it — like its hyper-vaudevillian approach to the Sergeant and his policemen — that never worked well. Fortunately, with the passage of time, productions have begun to find their own footing once again. I saw a very competent traditional take on Pirates by the Madison (Wisconsin) Savoyards two summers ago, and the current Victorian Lyric Opera Company (VLOC) production in Rockville is a very lively effort both the musical and staging aspects of which succeed delightfully.
Director Felicity Ann Brown (who is also part of the choreography team, along with Helen Aberger and Amanda Jones) makes the show move fluidly. Not for this Pirates the dreaded “G&S two-step,” which has passed for movement in too many productions. The choreographic highlight is a production number version of the Pirates’ “Come friends who plow the sea” in the second act, which with its two planned encores — including brief Fiddler and Chorus Line moments and a variety of kick lines — earned the loud approval of the near-capacity Saturday night crowd.
Brown made other creative choices that worked beautifully. Among the female chorus members were four older ladies, who played chaperones to the younger women. When Frederic is singing “Oh is there not one maiden breast…,” the chaperones do their best to contain their charges’ enthusiasm, causing the maidens’ “Oh no, not one” to make the most theatrical sense that I have ever seen.
Even by standards of Gilbert’s topsy-turvy world, the Major-General’s second act number “Sighing softly to the river” makes remarkably little sense. Brown wisely upstaged the Major-General’s gyrations and uber-silly lyrics by having two tree set pieces moved about by Pirates, while befuddled policemen tried to keep pace with them. Shortly afterward, Brown tops this with a smoothly executed rope trick, in which the Pirates’ capture of the girls morphs into their capture of the police.
Musically, music director Joseph Sorge’s full orchestra performed with excellent attention to tone, dynamics, and tempi: Gwen Earle on oboe and percussionist George Hutlin had particularly nice moments. Sorge conducted a lovely rendition of the a capella “Hail poetry,” with the cast in an appropriately choral formation. The quality of the choral singing, by both the men’s and women’s ensembles, was high throughout, even in those numbers involving substantial movement.
Jeffrey Gates, as the Pirate King, was far and away the outstanding soloist. With a robust, yet subtle, baritone voice, as well as a dynamic stage presence, Gates commanded his scenes, whether in a solo number like “I am a pirate king” or playing well with others in “A paradox.” For “Poor wandering one,” a Mabel needs to have the same sort of coloratura chops as Cunegonde in Candide’s Glitter and Be Gay. Keely Borland passed that test. (Courtney Kalbacker plays this role in alternate performances.) Stevie Miller, Amanda Jones, and Rachel Ackerman nicely supported Mabel as the three female chorus leads.
In any Pirates, an important challenge faces Mabel and Frederic in the second act. Having been typically silly G&S characters throughout, their exaggerated romantic and duty-bound natures, respectively, driving their comic excess, they must suddenly and credibly handle the score’s sweetest moment, the touching duet “Ah leave me not to pine.” Borland was able to generate the requisite emotion, physically as well as vocally. As Frederic, Timothy Ziese was as fresh-faced, enthusiastic, and guilelessly dutiful as one could ask for, also contributing a pleasant tenor voice to the proceedings. He might have connected more solidly with scene partners at times. In “Ah leave me not to pine,” though, while Mabel focused on him and her relationship with him, Ziese was oriented straight out to the audience, diminishing some of the feeling the song can convey.
Wendy Stengel as Ruth and George Willis as Major General Stanley were not as strong vocally as the other principals. Stengel had a rather thin sound. G&S patter baritones are not expected to be pure singers, of course, but Willis struggled noticeably with pitch at times. While not the most graceful actor ever to assay the role, Willis had great fun with an encore to the “I am the very model of a modern major-general” that spoofed current pop music. Stengel had excellent energy and moved well in the “A paradox” scene.
Ruth is Exhibit A for Gilbert’s chronic disdain for middle-aged women (47 years old: the horror). Sometime it would be fun for a director to reimagine her as a relatively hot, toned 40-something in pursuit of a cute young thing. Think “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” visits Penzance. But that would be a different production.
Samuel is a supporting role that can often disappear. To his credit, Rick DuPuy made his character’s presence felt, and he handled his solos in “Pour, oh pour the pirate sherry” and “Come friends who plow the sea” creditably. As the Sergeant of Police, Tom Goode was vocally adequate and brought an appropriately schlumpy presence as the hapless leader of as decrepit a bunch of bobbies as one could imagine.
Denise Young’s costume deigns for the women accented the director’s contrast between the younger and older chorus women, with the younger women in variously colored pastels while the chaperones were in uniform, subdued grayish dresses with thin stripes. As the lead, Mabel wore white. Generally, the ladies’ and pirates’ costumes were colorful and flattering to the actors, with the Pirate King and Major General being in different sorts of striking red uniforms. The combination of the Major General’s 50s sitcom-style pajamas and his plumed military hat in the second act was humorously effective. Only Ruth’s costume was ill-conceived, giving her an unnecessarily awkward look. The costumes for the policemen were baggy, which, intentionally or not, suited the way they were played.
The production sported some nice prop moments. Carl and Jane Mayott provided dolls and teddy bears for the young women in the opening scene of act two and newspapers with a period look for the young women to appear to read during “How beautifully blue the sky.” My favorite, however, was a large, multi-hued parrot hand puppet that one of the pirates carried throughout, manipulated to look as if it were joining the singing. My only regret is that the bird did not get an individual bow in the curtain call.
Director Brown also designed the set, which, despite some quirks, functioned well in facilitating interesting and balanced stage pictures and movement. Among the quirks was, in act two, a model house the style of which was more Virginia colonial than Cornwall. On the stage left side of the cyc was a drawing of a large 18th century-style man-o-war, hardly the sort of ship that Victorian-era pirates (had there been such) would have chosen. The second act set included grave markers for “Porter” and “Murgatroyd.” Brown correctly gauged that G&S fans — especially of a show the libretto of which cites “that infernal nonsense Pinafore” — would find a cross-reference or two irresistible.
VLOC was the area’s second G&S-centered group to be formed, starting life in the late 1970s as a splinter group of the older Montgomery (later Washington) Savoyards. With the apparent demise of the Savoyards — a casualty not only of economic troubles but also of considerable muddle concerning its niche in the local theater scene — VLOC stands as the only local company specializing in operetta. The success of this Pirates, both artistically and in terms of drawing an audience, is a hopeful sign that VLOC can continue to prosper by maintaining its focus and quality.
Earlier this year, I heard actor John Lithgow speak at The University of Maryland. He told a story of an orchestra that had been playing a particular piece in rep all season, and was getting bored with it, and it showed in their rehearsal. Just before a performance, the conductor addressed the orchestra, and told him that he understood their frustration, but he wanted them to go out and play for two specific people in the audience: The person who is hearing the piece for the very first time, and the person who is hearing it for the very last.
In directing this show, I’ve tried to keep that perspective in mind. There are those of you who were probably brought here by a friend or a parent or grandparent and are hearing Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s jokes for the very first time today, and then those of you who have seen countless productions of Pirates in your lifetime and are bound to make comparisons between this and all of the other productions you’ve seen. My hope is that we will provide something for everyone in this audience, providing entertainment for you no matter what your level of Pirates expertise.
Pirates is the first Gilbert &Sullivan show I ever saw. I was a student at Westtown School, a Friends school in Pennsylvania, and our class was taken to see the middle school’s production. I thought it was a very fun and silly show, but I did not retain much of the plot. Still, my grandmother, upon hearing I had seen the show, impressed upon me that this was something very important. She herself had played Ruth in a production at the very same Quaker school in the 1930’s. A family legend stands that my great-grandfather had started the G&S tradition when he came there as a teacher in the 1920’s, as a way to sneak some music into the rigid curriculum at a time when Quakers were not quite sure if music and theatre were appropriate uses of student time. I’m sure that Gilbert’s cleverness with words, Sullivan’s history of writing music for the church, and the rigidness of Victorian values displayed in the G&S canon helped to grease the wheels needed for approval.
This family tradition carried on to me when I first graced the stage as a sailor, complete with stipple-brushed beard, in H.M.S. Pinafore at age twelve. I got involved with building sets for the first time, helping to hoist a giant mast and rigging on stage, I climbed up into the catwalk to focus lights, I cut off pants and glued ribbons on hats to make sailor costumes, and was fully enveloped by full range of the magic of theatre for the first time. To this day, I remain that involved, even when my primary duty is as director, because I love that feeling of creation of every little piece of the magic.
After that first production of Pinafore, the music and words were permanently engraved into my mind. I didn’t realize the significance of this until a few months later, when I was watching the cartoon Animaniacs and the segment “H.M.S. Yakko” came on and I realized I had been let in on this incredible extended inside-joke specifically for Gilbert & Sullivan fans. Sure the cartoon was goofy and full of slapstick that any child would be amused by, but I could identify all of the score as pieces of H.M.S. Pinafore and Pirates, and I understood that “I am the very model of a cartoon individual” wasn’t just something from a kids show…this was an exclusive club I had been allowed into…a shared culture of the performing arts. This membership lets people in on the G&S allusions that are seen in The Simpsons, Pretty Woman, West Wing, Family Guy, Star Trek: Insurrection, and far too many more to list. Gilbert & Sullivan is part of our cultural literacy that warrants passing on to future generations. Thank you for being here today, and keep passing it on.
- Frederic: Timothy Ziese
- The Pirate King: Jeffrey Gates
- Samuel: Rick DuPuy
- Ruth: Wendy Stengel
- Major General Stanley: George Willis
- Mabel: Keely Borland (Courtney Kalbacker in alternate performances)
- Edith: Rachel Ackerman
- Kate: Amanda Jones
- Isabel: Stevie Miller
- Sergeant of Police: Tom Goode
- Young Frederic: Gabriella Jones
- Chorus of Pirates, Police, and General Stanley’s Wards and their governesses:
- Helen Aberger, Brian Beard, Densie Cross, Kayla Cummings, Kris Devine, Tara Hockensmith, Chuck Howell, Rand Huntzinger, Ralph Johnson, Joanna Jones, Josh Katz, Erik Kreil, Lauren Lentini, Carl Maryott, Jane Maryott, Josh Milton, Rowyn Peel, Brian Polk, Bill Rogers, Kevin Schellhase, Sarah Seider, Barbara Semiatin, Ed Vilade, Maria Wilson, Kent Woods
- Violin 1: Steve Natrella (CM), Bonnie Barrows, Peter Mignerey, Irv Berner
- Violin 2: Martin Brown, Edwin Schneider, Cassie Conley
- Viola: Amanda Laudwein, Stephanie Cross
- Percussion: George Hutlin
- Bass: Pete Gallanis
- Flute: Jackie Miller, Louise Hill
- Oboe: Gwen Earle
- Clarinet: Laura Langbein, Laura Bornhoeft
- Bassoon: Steve Weschler, Betsy Haanes
- Horn: Joe Cross, Lora Katz, Gail Hixenbaugh
- Trumpet: Curt Anstine, Rick Pasciuto, Tom Gleason
- Trombone: Steve Ward, Frank Eliot, Al Potter
- Cello: Michael Stein, Sheryl Friedlander, Andrew Nixon
- Producer: Denise Young
- Director: Felicity Ann Brown
- Music Director: Joseph Sorge
- Assistant Music Director: Jenny Craley Bland
- Assistant to the Director: Helen Aberger
- Stage Manager: Douglas Maryott
- Choreography: Amanda Jones, Felicity Ann Brown, Helen Aberger
- Scenic Designer: Felicity Ann Brown
- Costume Designer: Denise Young
- Lighting Designer: Noam Lautman
- Rehearsal Pianists: Jenny Craley Bland, Joanna Jones
- Light Board Operator: Noam Lautman
- Makeup/Hair Designer: Renee Silverstone
- Master Carpenter: Devin Work
- Set Crew/Painters: Helen Aberger, Felicity Ann Brown, Rober Dennis, Kris Devine,
- Ben Dransfield, Alice Drew, Tony Dwyer, Blair Eig, Dean Fiala, Rand
- Huntzinger, William Kolodrubetz, Sarah Martin, Douglas Maryott, Anna Polk, Brian Polk, Bill Rogers, Sarah Seider, Scott Tennent, Ed Vilade, Kent Wood, Timothy Ziese
- Costume Construction: Denise Cross, Stephanie Cross, Rebecca Meyerson, Stevie
- Miller, Felicity Brown, Sarah Martin, Maria Wilson, Lauren Lentini, Kathie
- Rogers, Barbara Miller
- Props: Carl & Jane Maryott
- Photography: Harvey Lavine
- Audition Pianist: Jenny Craley Bland
- Program: Courtney Kalbacker, Denise Young
- Surtitles: Douglas Maryott, Annie Gribben
- Cover & Poster Art: Erika White Abrams
- Publicity: Courtney Kalbacker, Ed Vilade, Felicity Ann Brown
- House Management: Denise Young, Cassandra Stevens
- Set and Costume Storage: Rockville Civic Center
Disclaimer: Victorian Lyric Opera Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10477.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.