The Grand Duke

27628970_1190706627730702_447301274202224173_oHearing a musical work or experiencing a play for the first time is exhilarating. When the “new” piece is a 122-year-old Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, there’s a rare combination of the unknown and the familiar–their last collaboration.

There isn’t a G&S opera that doesn’t have the familiar musical motifs of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s settings of W.S. Gilbert’s wit-laden and often absurd plots. It’s their unique and enduring brand of topsy-turvydom, regardless of the opera, but as Katisha in The Mikado says it’s “an acquired taste”.

Good news: If you love Gilbert and Sullivan, you are in for a treat at the Pittsburgh Savoyards’ 80th anniversary production of The Grand Duke. Fans should be in a seat for this second weekend of performances as the Savoyards take on Duke for the second time in the eight-decade history of one of the region’s longest running community theaters. The Savoyards have only performed Duke once before, back in 1977.

Under the baton of Guy Russo and the stage direction of Robert Hockenberry with Shannon Knapp as assistant director, the Savoyards’ company of orchestra and singers succeeds in bringing The Grand Duke to life. Significantly, the Savoyards run on the steam of volunteerism, comradery, and a love of the G&S canon.

Director Robert Hockenberry admits in his program note that the piece needed some thoughtful trimming to tighten it up for modern ears. Certainly the piece reflects the prowess of its writers and their long-running collaboration. Gilbert’s plot is no less silly than some others and Sullivan’s music shines–displaying the soaring melodies and harmonies for stellar voices supported by rich orchestration. Hockenberry explains that “perhaps the worst song Sullivan ever wrote was cut” and that that company set out to polish a work some consider a rough jewel.

WIth the love and respect due to a work of such pedigree, the Savoyards shine as they share the joy that’s kept this local troupe going for eight decades–despite wars, economic downturns, and less recognition of G&S works in the opera world.

For that joy alone, the Savoyards deserve more than three cheers. And for staging this rarely heard opera, the company earns praise for taking on yet another project that singularly distinguishes what the Savoyards represent as they so passionately carry on as the region’s oldest community theater.

The orchestra shines with this multifaceted score under Russo’s capable baton. The men’s chorus is very solid given the usually small numbers. Women’s voices in the chorus are strong and provide a number of supportive solo bits.

Some roles are shared by company members, so leads vary for some performances through this weekend’s final events. As we attended the Sunday matinee on March 4, some of the leading singers are on stage again Saturday, March 10 with their doubles appearing on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.

In the title role for the entire run, Michael Greenstein brings experience and his knack for some of Gilbert’s quirkiest characters to the title role as the Grand Duke of a tiny German village (with a name too long to include here) in 1750.

There, the local thespian troupe are dismayed about his tight purse strings and conspired to remove him. The overture features dance and theater warm-ups while the show is filled with many fun references to the roles of company members and management. Undoubtedly, Gilbert was writing about what he knew and it’s charming for the cast members and the audience.

The plot is almost too multifaceted to explain, but suffice it to say there’s no parson for the Duke’s impending wedding, he upends a young couple’s own ceremony plans, the little guys lose out, and the aristocracy is almost overthrown with the draw of a card–hence the “statutory duel” reference.

But there’s second  “duke”, an actor who wins the Duchy’s top spot when he takes on the Duke. Andy Hickly is charming as the wannabe. Paul Yeater is fun as theatrical manager–perhaps based on someone in the original Savoy Theater company. Mark F. Harris gave a charming turn as the Herald late in the show. As the Notary, Ryan Garber adds just the right touch of the rule of law.

Anna Lahti beautiful sang as the sardonic Julia Jellicoe, a comedienne in the troupe who winds up as the new Duke’s bride. Lisa, his discarded fiancee, was sweetly sung by Sarah Marie Nadler. Sally Denmead plied her acting and singing chops to create an entertaining and sympathetic bride-to-be who loses out when the original Duke steps down. Her hopes are dashed by Julia, but all is further confused when the Princess of Monte Carlo, delightfully drawn by Brennan Bobish shows to marry to the Duke herself. Seems her kingdom promised her hand many years ago. Likewise, Hayden Keefer turns in a fun performance as the Prince of Monte Carlo. And the pair’s outlandish wigs, make-up and costumes are a shot in the arm late in the show.

The show likewise closes with an unexpected kick-line and more merriment. Hockenberry earns kudos for keeping the energy flowing through two long acts and the whole two and a half hours. His judicious editing benefits the production immensely.

Ed Griffiths is joined by Hockenberry for scenic design that provides the village, town square, and a view of the German mountains in the distance. Ellen Rosen leads as costume design, turning in colorful variations for the huge chorus and distinctive styles for each lead character. Garth Schafer is back as lighting designer, providing a consistent look and effects appropriate for this bright and comic show.

The ensemble of 14 singers and a half dozen supers provide chorus back-up and color.

There’s plenty of jokes for insiders, but the curious newcomer should consider this production. It’s never too late to “get” G&S and it might be just the comic diversion as we move into daylight savings time!

And you can party with the Savoyards at Cheers for 80 Years, a birthday fete at Penn Brewery on April 28.

Details on The Grand Duke and all things about The Pittsburgh Savoyard are online in the company site.

Pittsburgh Savoyards Celebrate 80th Season!

Pinafore-Website-Banner-Draft-1Audiences can enjoy performances of HMS Pinafore, October 13-15 & 19-22 2017, and the Grand Duke, Spring 2018 this season with the Pittsburgh Savoyards! A testament to the city’s thriving arts scene, the Pittsburgh Savoyards have been a semi-professional, community-based, non-profit theater company funded primarily by local contributions and ticket sales for eighty seasons.

The Savoyards primarily focus on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan are the undisputed masters of comic operetta and the proud parents of the modern musical. That their works are more in demand today than when they were created over a century ago is ample proof of their lasting brilliance.

This season will begin with one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most beloved shows, HMS Pinafore. Stage directed Shane Valenzi (Gilbert and Sullivan expert), Pinafore will run for two weekends, Oct. 13-15 and 19-22 at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Ave, Carnegie, Pa 15106. Resident Music Director and Conductor Guy Russo will lead ensemble and orchestra. Mr. Russo spoke excitedly about the show. “I am very excited about this upcoming production of HMS Pinafore for a few reasons.  First, it’s always been on my very short list of G&S works.  Next, we have managed to assemble a tremendous cast for this production, with a very enthusiastic, strong ensemble. We have once again been fortunate enough to have an orchestra full of very fine players who have shown tremendous dedication to the Savoyards.  Finally, our Stage Director for this show, Shane Valenzi, is quite creative and talented, and his vision for this production is exciting, and I feel certain that our audiences are going to be GREATLY entertained!”. All shows begin at 8pm except on Sundays, which begin at 2:30pm.

For the first time, in addition to the regular rates for tickets, the company now offers premium seating at the venue in Rows D, E, and F for an additional $5.00 on the ticket. Those who order tickets by Oct. 9 can take advantage of the special early bird discount.

Pinafore is an age-old story of love! The story takes place aboard the ship HMS Pinafore. The captain’s daughter, Josephine, is in love with a lower-class sailor, Ralph Rackstraw, although her father intends her to marry Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty.

Pinafore will be followed in the Spring by the Grand Duke, Directed by Robert Hockenberry.  In the Grand Duke, the curtain rises on the market square of Speisesaal where Ernest Dummkopf’s acting troupe is rehearsing for a production of the Greek tragedy Troilus and Cressida. Beneath the theatrical veneer, a conspiracy is afoot among the thespians to overthrow Rudolph, the Grand Duke.

There are a variety of event offerings this season, including opening night festivities and a catered British Tea. Interested patrons should visit the website to learn about upcoming events and make arrangements to attend at

The Pittsburgh Savoyards is a 501(c)(3) non-profit theatre group founded in 1938 whose mission is to honor and perpetuate the works of 19th Century English composing duo Sir William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. Using funds raised from ticket sales, fundraising events, and donations from generous patrons, the Savoyards perform two Gilbert and Sullivan productions per year, one in fall and one in spring. The shows feature a talented mix of both amateur and professional performers from the Greater Pittsburgh Area. In addition to its stage productions, the group organizes numerous community outreach projects to bring the rich heritage of Gilbert and Sullivan to people of all ages, emphasizing the timelessness of the duo’s whimsical tales and charmingly lighthearted music. A partner of Britsburgh since 2017, The Pittsburgh Savoyards is an ARAD asset and is also supported by the Pittsburgh Foundation.