UMGASS mines for pirate gold in Gilbert & Sullivan's popular "Penzance"
“Pirates of Penzance,” the well-known Gilbert & Sullivan comic operetta, has been a hit from stage to Broadway to the movies and back to the stage. Now it’s the spring production of the University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society.
The familiar show has much to recommend it, said UMGASS veteran David Andrews, who is directing the production.“It’s very tightly written, which is interesting because it was written very fast,” he explained. “They (Gilbert & Sullivan) were hoping to get something out to take advantage of the buzz from ‘H.M.S. Pinafore,’ and yet they put together something that hangs together really well. It’s one of the shorter ones; there’s not a lot of fluff in it. But it’s also one of the more musically complex. It’s generally acknowledged that Sullivan did much better work on this one than he did on ‘Pinafore.’”
Andrews has been involved in UMGASS since 2002 as a cast member and director (he co-directed “H.M.S. Pinafore” last year). Beth Ballbach and Phil Rhodes are choreographers and Laura Swierzbin, a recent U-M grad, is music director.
In “Penzance,” a band of tender-hearted pirates celebrate the coming of age of Frederic, who was apprenticed at birth to the pirates until he turns 21. As an adult, Frederic has vowed to devote his life to the extermination of piracy—until a leap year complication threatens to keep him apprenticed for life. Meanwhile, he finds himself in love with the lovely young Mabel, even though his vocation stands in the way of their relationship. It falls to his hard-of-hearing nursemaid, Ruth, to clarify the situation just in time for a happy ending.
The show’s memorable characters include Major-General Stanley (Don Regan), who gets to offer the frequently parodied and incredibly catchy patter song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Tom Cilluffo plays Frederic, Ali Kahn (in her last term at U-M) plays Mabel, Lori Gould is cast as Ruth, and choreographer Rhodes gets to breathe life into the role of The Pirate King.
With a work as familiar as “Pirates” the challenge, said Andrews, is to offer a fresh take while not altering things so much that traditionalists will be offended.
“You start out with sort of a Hippocratic approach—it’s a popular piece and people know it so well. You don’t want to do any harm to the core of the show that people will expect to see,” he said.
“But I think there’s a lot of opportunity to really put a stamp on it. This is the 13th time that UMGASS has done ‘Pirates,’ and so with the same script being done every several years you really want to leave an impression in people’s minds, and I think you can do that with the design elements with the show.”
Andrews said the design is based on Victorian toy theater. “The design of the show will have that kind of that perspective, with a false proscenium framing the stage,” he said. “Many of the scenic designs will be slides sliding back and forth in the back of the theater. For example, rather than having actual constructed mountains, you have these various sliding scenery pieces that will come in from the sides.
“I think visually it will be very interesting. We’re trying to put a design stamp on the show that will be memorable to the audience without interfering with any of the music or dialog,” he explained.
Meanwhile, he thinks he knows why UMGASS has enjoyed so much success over the years with this show and others.
“It’s a real good company, they do really good work. And of course the pieces are a lot of fun. That’s why people come to them over and over again throughout the years,” Andrews said.