Reviewed by George Basler
Back in the 1940s, there was a New York Yankee baseball player, Tommy Heinrich, who was called “old reliable” because of his consistency on the ball field.
While it may be stretching the comparison, the Summer Savoyards have become one of “the old reliables” of the local theater scene over the past half century. The company, which annually stages a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera with a cast, crew and administration of volunteers, opened its 52nd season Thursday (July 12) and didn’t disappoint. The mostly-youthful cast turned in a solid and enjoyable peformance of The Pirates of Penzance, which stands as one of G&S’s best-known works, along with The Mikado and HMS Pinafore.
Don’t expect anything avant garde or ground-breaking from the Savoyards. While a few topical references have been thrown into the mix, this production at Binghamton University’s Anderson Center takes a traditional approach to the work. Director William Clark Snyder has said he sees the production as an opportunity for young singers and performers to “get their sea legs” in a show that requires real vocal expertise.
For the sake of full disclosure, I’m not a heavy-duty Gilbert & Sullivan fan. Their operettas are, in my opinion, an acquired taste for modern audiences. Some are virtually unperformable. (Have you seen a good production of Utopia Limited recently.)
That being said, I had a good time Thursday night, and I think you will, too, if you give G&S half a chance. Pirates, after all, is one of their best. Its goofball humor, tied to a story that is silly beyond belief, remains fresh and funny. In fact, watching the production made me realize just how much the modern-day absurdist comedy of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python owes to the 19th century’s Gilbert & Sullivan. It’s no suprise that Groucho Marx was a big fan of G&S.
To be successful, Pirates has to be funny. This may seem like a “no, duh!” statement, but as the old saying goes, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” I saw a Tri Cities Opera production of Pinafore that, while well sung, just wasn’t funny, and as a result was a dud.
The Savoyards’ production, by contrast, is good-natured throughout, with abundant funny moments. The cast walks the fine line of taking the work seriously while winking at the audience at the same time. Particularly noteworthy was Mickey Woyshner as the Pirate King. A strong singer with good comic timing, Woyshner seemed to be having a ball channeling Johnny Depp of Pirates of the Carribean. (Note: Most of the main parts are double cast, meaning one cast will perform Thursday and Saturday while another peforms Friday and Sunday. I saw the Thursday/Saturday cast and would welcome comments on how the Friday/Sunday peformers do).
Another main comic character is Major-General Stanley. Although too young for the role, Brian Ives gave a spirited performance in the difficult role. My hat’s off to the young man — he’s only a sophomore at Syracuse University — for tackling “Modern Major-General,” one of the most parodied of G&S songs. His performance, while a bit frenetic at times, is funny.
The three other main characters are Ruth, the pirate’s maid; Frederic, a young pilot; and Mabel, the female lead. To my untrained ear, all were well sung Thursday by Danel Vaglica, Patrick Tombs and Melissa Pipher. Particularly praiseworthy was the fact that they sang without amplication. I especially like Tombs and Pipher’s love duet toward the end of Act II.
Matthew Roe as the sergeant of police also provides many funny moments.
The men’s and women’s choruses also were first-rate in both acting and singing. One highlight was the performance of “Hail Poetry,” one of G&S’s best-known choral passages near the end of Act I. According to some G&S scholars, the duo is parodying a Verdi aria with this composition. To me, it was just a very pretty song, which is a way of saying you don’t have to be any sort of G&S scholar to enjoy this show.
A final shout-out should go to a wonderful pit orchestra under the musical direction of Matthew Vavalle. This is no dry as dust production, but good, light summer entertainment.
Performances will continue through the weekend. Tonight, Friday, is “Dress Like a Pirate Night.” Those in proper pirate gear can purchase tickets for $10 at the door. Pirates continues at 8 p.m. today and Saturday (July 13 and 14) and 3 p.m. Sunday (July 15) at the Anderson Center Chamber Hall. Tickets at $15 to $18 can be purchased by calling 777-4237 or visiting www.summersavoyards.org.