Before I dive into the meat of this review I have to mention everything about this assignment is new to me. This is my first operetta and also my first time seeing a The Pittsburgh Savoyards (Savoyards) Inc. production. Imagine, a theater production company, actively performing for 78 seasons, the past 23 in my own backyard, and this is my first time in attendance. I am pleased to say, as a novice, I can approach this critique of the classic Gilbert and Sullivan’s, The Pirates Penzance, with a completely fresh and unbiased outlook.
The Savoyards boast their own orchestra which is absolutely delightful. Conductor Guy Russo leads a group of musicians who produce superb orchestral movements through finely crafted skill. Together they present a lighthearted and memorable score.
The show begins with the pirate apprentice Frederic (Alec Donaldson) being released on his 21st year from obligations to the Pirate King (Andy Hickly) and his troop of orphaned pirates the Pirates of Penzance. Frederic is looking forward to experiencing life outside the ship and sea. His nursemaid Ruth (Deborah Greenstein), 26 years his senior, begs to join him, proclaiming with confidence that she is beautiful and will make a good wife. Frederic considers her offer until he meets a group of lovely young sisters. He and the beautiful Mabel (Katie Manukyan) swiftly fall in love. All seems wonderful until the Pirates of Penzance enter and each take a sister for himself. The sisters’ father, Major- General Stanley (Michael Greenstein), comes to their rescue by professing to the Pirate King he too is an orphan. Knowing the pirates have a weak spot for orphans, Major- General easily overthrows the band of villains and takes his daughters, Frederic in tow, to his family estate.
The Pirate King and Ruth come after Frederic revealing the paradox of his servitude. Based on the language in his contract, Frederic was born on February 29, a leap year. He has lived 21 years but has only had 5 birthdays. Unfortunately, he must return with the Pirates of Penzance, leaving behind his beloved Mabel, until his 21st birthday. What follows is a whimsical story of nobility and love.
The musical score is familiar and most audience members will most leave the theater humming , “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General” or “Now For The Pirates’ Lair”, which I am singing to myself as I write this!
Ms. Manukyan, Mr. Donaldson and Mr. Hickly are the stars of the show. Manykyan’s voice is operatic and angelic, her trilling is enthralling and especially sweet during, “Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast”. Hickly’s theatrics are captivating, he has clear diction and a strong voice. Donaldson is a charming pirate, and a perfect rendition of an innocent young man. His vocal delivery is powerful and he projects loud enough to be heard over the accompaniment. Michael Greenstein is wonderfully animated but sounds like he sings with a mouth full of cotton. Deborah Greenstein, when positioned downstage bares an enchanting voice but otherwise I could hardly make out her words she sang so quiet. Two of Mabel’s sisters, Kate played by Sarah McCullough and Mia Bonnewell as Edith fare well enough but seem to lack the vocal strength needed to really shine as I expect these characters have the capability. The ensemble cast are all smiles, their voices meld harmoniously and the costumes are bright and lively.
Supertitles. What are they? Above the stage stretches a banner, a projection screen that displays the lyrics to the songs as the actors perform them. Due to the vocal range of certain performers I initially welcomed this novelty, only to realize I was staring at the screen more than I was watching the actors on stage. I must say, I found the supertitles incredibly distracting. After doing a little research, I’ve learned supertitles are a common practice at the opera. Even the Metropolitan Opera offers a version of lyric translation for patrons. So, excuse my ignorance if you are aware of this addition and can utilize it in a positive way. I feel the practice impaired my focus.
Typically smaller stages create challenges for a large company to perform comfortably. Although I witnessed a few awkward directorial moments, overall, I think stage director Sean Lenhart is very capable of working within the space confines of a crowded stageI enjoyed the show; the music, the ensemble and the set were a professional quality and the pleasure of performing resonated from each actor.
Please note that The Pirates of Penzance is double cast, our review is based on the March 11th performance. Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Savoyards for complimentary press tickets. You’ve got one more chance to see The Pirates of Penzance today at 2:30pm at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall. For tickets and more information check out their website.