Pirates with pizazz

Ovation! stages Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic comic opera ‘Pirates of Penzance.’

Royce Napolitino throws himself into the waiting arms of his pirate crew, who catch him and bear him aloft singing “Hurrah for our Pirate King!”

The swashbuckling Napolitino heads the crew of hearties in Ovation! Musical Theater’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” opening July 16 at Bainbridge High School.

“It’s going to be a crackerjack show,” Milton said, “just sharp as a tack. Four months of rehearsal, (and) they’re ready.

“My problem now is to hold them back and polish the few things for the next week before we open. The energy’s running a little too high, now. We don’t want to peak too early.”

The cast expended excess energy Thursday, performing numbers for commuters bound for Bainbridge aboard the 4:45 p.m. ferry, and inducting captain Ty Anderson into their swashbuckling band.

“We were so eager to share this fabulous music with the community that we couldn’t wait until opening night,” music director Corinna Lapid-Munter said.

In the last week of rehearsal before opening night, the energy of the cast of 47 seems barely contained in the Hyla Middle School rehearsal room.

“We’re going to run this top to bottom, just like a regular performance,” Milton says. “I want concentration. There’s no safety net, there’s no prompter. There’s nothing that’s going to bail you out except yourself, so think ahead. Forge your way through anything that happens.

“Curtain up, lights up. You’re on.”

The opening scene that establishes the tuneful plot – Gary Chambers as Frederic, a young gentleman who has spent years mistakenly indentured to a pirate because his deaf nurse misheard his father’s instruction to have him attached to a pilot – also serves to point audiences to the importance of diction in this particular work.

“With the story line relying so much on the text, diction is crucial,” says Lapid-Munter, who sings the part of Ruth. “Many times there are four different pieces going on at the same time. Four different parts, plus the choreography, plus the diction.”  

The libretto is devilishly difficult, with numbers that are musical tongue twisters, like the well-known opening lines of the ditty sung by Jim Welch as Major General Stanley:

“I am the very model of a modern Major General,

I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral...”

The music also presents challenges.

Although the melodies are easily sung-along with, it is extremely difficult music, Lapid-Munter says. She points to the breezy chorus of Stanley’s daughters singing about the weather in 2/4 time against the 3/4 waltz meter of the love duet between Welch and Kathleen Gillette as Mabel Stanley.

Despite the hard work, the four months of rehearsal have been enjoyable, cast members say, as they have put their own spin on the British humor.

“We’re having a blast, it’s so much fun. We’re just laughing our way through rehearsals,” says Nita Burks, who plays a pirate. “I think it’s because of the libretto and because how the individual actors have interpreted their parts. I’ve seen three or four productions and they all do it differently. Ours has a unique twist.”

While interpretations may vary, an enduring charm of composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist W.S. Gilbert’s musical construct is the evocation of Victorian England. While the pair poked fun at music contemporaries like Gounod and satirized social conventions, the fun was built on the foundation of what must have seemed, in 1890, to be the immovable rock of the Empire upon which the sun did not set, a foundation buttressed by Victorian mores.

That the work would outlast the era, Sullivan, at least, was sure.

A few days after the New York premiere of “Pirates of Penzance” at the Fifth Avenue Theater on Dec. 31, 1879, he wrote in a letter to his mother:

“What do I think of the piece myself? The libretto is ingenious, clever, wonderfully funny in parts, and sometimes brilliant in dialogue – beautifully written for music, as is all Gilbert does, and all the action and business perfect.”

But, as Milton points out, even the most brilliant vehicle couldn’t move, today, without a big push from a corps of volunteers who take time out from busy lives to make art.

“We came together to master the score, to donate hundreds of hours to create the set, to put on fund-raisers,” Milton said.

“That process of community-based performance is representative of everything that is good about humanity – friendship, camaraderie, mutual respect, working together to achieve a goal and striving for excellence.”

When the whole team works well, the result is a gift to the larger community, a needed reminder that art has the power to make life more than endurable.

That’s why, Milton says, the performance closes with a reprise of “Hail Poetry,” lines sung by the pirate crew:

“Although we live by strife,

We’re always sorry to begin it,

For what, we ask, is life

Without a touch of Poetry in it?”

Shiver me timbers

Ovation! and a cast of 47 present Gilbert & Sullivan’s musical comedy “The Pirates of Penzance,” led by artistic director Ron Milton and music director Corinna Lapid-Munter. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, July 16-July 31, and Sundays, July 18-August 1, with a special matinee 3 p.m. July 31. All performances are at the Bainbridge High School LGI Room. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors/students and $9 for children under 12. Tickets are available at Vern’s Drug; by calling 842-0472; or at the door.

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