It’s been three days since I saw Pittsburgh Savoyards’ production of H.M.S. Pinafore, and I’m still singing “I Am the Monarch of the Sea” to myself, which tells you just how catchy Gilbert & Sullivan tunes can be!
Pittsburgh Savoyards marks its 80th season of celebrating the beloved works of Gilbert & Sullivan with their latest production H.M.S. Pinafore, stage direction by Shane Valenzi and music direction by Guy Russo. It’s Mr. Russo’s 20th season as music director and conductor for the company, and the Savoyards have their own special way of marking the occasion during selected performances of Pinafore. If you are interested in seeing what they do, go to a performance on October 19 or 20th; that’s all I’m saying since it’s set up as a surprise.
Director Valenzi has previously directed for the Savoyards in 2009 and 2010. Mia Bonnewell (Cousin Hebe) has been in 10 Savoyards productions, while Connor Halloran (Sailor) is a high school senior making his debut with the company. Concertmaster Laura Leonard has played the violin in every Savoyards production since 2009. Corey Nile Wingard (Dick Deadeye) is returning to the company after an 8-year hiatus. All of which is to say that Pittsburgh Savoyards seems to successfully nurture both long-standing artistic relationships and new, inexperienced talent in their company.
On the community front, Pittsburgh Savoyards has an impressive number of individual donors supporting their work, and I was privileged to speak with an audience member who has been coming to see the Savoyards productions for the last 19 years.
In other words, this is a company entrenched in the life of the community, that has a clear vision of what they do and how they want to do it, and that has succeeded in their mission for 80 years. That alone is a notable achievement.
The Pittsburgh Savoyards proudly claims their status as a community-based, semi-professional theater company, with the majority of their cast and orchestra volunteering their time to the production, and they stand by this identity. As a result, their final product is a bit uneven. The varying skill levels of the performers are obvious, but the overall effect is one of joy. These people love performing Gilbert & Sullivan, and that feeling carries over the footlights to the audience.
There were two stand-out performances that deserve a mention. Anna Lahti sang Little Buttercup with great vocal control and stamina throughout the evening. Sarah Marie Nadler as Josephine was the highlight of the production. With her beautiful soubrette soprano, Ms. Nadler’s voice floated through all of her numbers with delicate precision while still cutting through the orchestra when power was required. She also exhibited a delightful sense of comedic flair in her acting that was always welcome. Ms. Nadler shares the role of Josephine with Caryn Alexis Crozier, who I did not see perform; you can see Ms. Nadler’s remaining performances on October 20 and 22nd.
Also of note was the Pittsburgh Savoyards orchestra, conducted ably by Guy Russo and Edward Leonard. While sounding a little thin at times, this small orchestra put on a beautifully controlled performance, always in support of the singers, never overpowering them. The orchestra played as one, well-conditioned unit.
Misters Russo and Leonard should also be commended for their work with the singers in this production. Diction across the board was excellent, making it easy to understand all of the lyrics and get all of the jokes without really needing to look at the projections above the stage. Likewise, all of the voices were well balanced and the chorus sounded great as a group.
The stage at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall has its pros and cons as a performing space. On the plus side: it’s a beautiful, traditional proscenium stage with great acoustics. I was thrilled beyond measure there was no, repeat NO, miking of the performers or the orchestra, and all of the singers’ voices carried easily throughout the hall. It was a delight for the ears.
On the minus side: the stage is very shallow, which greatly limits design options and staging options. This didn’t help with the staging of the show, which had a tendency to be too static in general, and then had to contend with there being nowhere for the performers to move during the big, full-company numbers. Lighting positions seem limited as well, which created problematic lighting moments with performers being too much in the dark. And the company really needs at least 2 follow-spots, if they are going to use follow-spots.
A G&S production is always a silly good time with its high comedic style, catchy tunes, and good-natured send-ups of 19th century English society. Whether you’re an inveterate Anglophile or musical theater fan, G&S always fits the bill.
You can catch Pittsburgh Savoyards’ production of H.M.S. Pinafore through October 22, 2017 at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall. Tickets are available at www.pittsburghsavoyards.org.