Sunday, November 6, 2022

"Pirates of Penzance" by Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company at Howard Conn Fine Arts Center

In their first fall production, Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company, the only local company dedicated to the silly, witty, and delightful creations of late 19th Century British librettist and composer W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, respectively, bring us my personal favorite, The Pirates of Penzance! GSVLOC have typically just been doing one show a year, in the spring, but as their dedicated audience would agree, once is just not enough. Directed by Gary Briggle (who played the Major General in the Ordway's 2015 production), the huge cast and off-stage orchestra bring out all of the delicious silliness and gorgeous musicality of the piece. If you're looking for a traditional production of this G&S masterpiece (with an interesting note in the program about the history of the piece - the first to premiere in the U.S.), this is it. See it at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Plymouth Congregational Church in South Minneapolis through November 20.

The plot of The Pirates of Penzance, like all G&S shows, is a silly thing that allows them to do their thing. In this case, young Frederic was mistakenly apprenticed to pirates by his nursemaid Ruth, instead of pilots as his family suggested. Contracted to serve through his 21st birthday, he is now free to leave piracy and live a more noble life. Which is to be accomplished by marrying a noble woman, to which her Major General father objects. But before this can happen, the Pirate King tells Frederic that because he was born on leap day, he's technically only had five birthdays, and is duty bound to continue the pirate trade. The pirates attack the Major General, but they're not the most successful pirates, and after some antics and hijinks, peace is restored in time for a happy ending.*

Highlights in this production include:

  • Everyone in the 30+ person cast is so animated and engaged in the story. They do a great job keeping up with the quick patter of this score, and create some beautiful sounds together. My favorite musical moment in the piece is the "divine emollient" a capella section, and it's lovely with this cast.
  • Seth Tychon Steidl and Anna Maher
    as Frederic and Mabel
    (photo courtesy of GSVLOC)
    The strong leads include a charming Seth Tychon Steidl as Frederic; a vocally impressive Anna Maher as Mabel; Waldyn Benbenek as the roguish Pirate King; Lara Trujillo as Ruth, holding her own amongst the pirates (the "Ruth is old and ugly" jokes are my least favorite part of this piece, and certainly don't ring true in this case); and last but not least, a scene-stealing Scott A. Gorman as the Major General.
  • The 30-piece off-stage orchestra under the baton of Randal A. Buikema is a treat to listen to. This familiar and beloved score sounds wonderful.
  • Wendy Waszut-Barret's set design places a mini stage and proscenium on the Howard Conn stage, with charmingly old-fashioned backdrops of the seaside and the chapel ruins, including one that literally rolls up to reveal what's behind it. Director Gary Briggle notes in the program that she's "an internationally renowned expert in the lost art of  'dry pigment techniques' from the 18th and 19th centuries." I'm not sure what that is, but the result is beautiful, with a vintage feeling.
  • The dozens of pirates and ladies are dressed in a variety of colorful gowns, nightgowns, and kilts. I'm not sure why the pirates are Scottish, but I'm never going to complain about men in kilts (costume design by Barb Portinga).

Sometimes a 140-year-old classic piece of music-theater is just the "divine emollient" you need in a weary world. Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company's The Pirates of Penzance plays for two more weekends only; visit their website for info and tickets

*Plot summary borrowed from my review of Park Square Theatre's 2018 production.

**Friendly reminder that you can watch the entire gloriously cheesy 1983 movie adaptation on YouTube for free, in which Kevin Kline reprises his Tony-winning role from the Broadway production, not to mention the divine Angela Lansbury and pop stars Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith.