Fresh direction and choreography will paint a new face on a classic Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta this fall, as the Muhlenberg College theater and dance department presents “The Pirates of Penzance,” Oct. 28 – Nov. 6.
“Expect a night of great family entertainment,” says theater professor Charles Richter, who directs the production. “It’s a work of comic genius and a real pleasure to direct.”
Music director Ed Bara and choreographer Samuel Antonio Reyes add a modern spin while also highlighting the original conventions of the play. Reyes choreographed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” for Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre, this past July. Bara, a member of the music department faculty, also played the lead as a guest artist in the 2014 Muhlenberg production of Kurt Weill’s American opera, “Street Scene.”
“Ed has been a mainstay of the music department for years, and is an expert at coaching students to produce the sort of sound that this show demands,” Richter says. “Sammy is our hip-hop teacher. His choreography is very spunky — really different and interesting.”
Reyes says he loves “Pirates” as much as he loves working with Richter, and that he expects that audiences will be excited by his choreography.
“It’s challenging to perform opera while you’re also moving to very specific stylized movements, gestures, and rhythms,” Reyes says. “This show features such amazing young talent.”
“Pirates” tells the story of an accidental pirate’s apprentice named Frederic and his swashbuckling misadventures on the high seas. Along the way, he encounters the beautiful Mabel, the deceitful Ruth, the powerful Pirate King, and the absurd Major-General Stanley, who patter-sings the famous “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” towards the end of the first act.
“It’s a right work out,” says Nicky Rosolino, one of the two actors who will play Major-General Stanley, of his big song. “There is nothing quite like standing on top of a barrel and boasting about your range of talents to a crowd of pirates and adopted daughters.”
Jake Parisse, the other Major-General, says, “Charlie makes sure that the comedic rhythm of the character is maintained while encouraging Nicky and me to make very different and unique choices.”
Two sets of principal actors will alternate performances to allow vocal rest between shows — and to showcase the talents of the theater and dance department. The cast performs the show’s demanding score with a 21-piece orchestra — and without benefit of microphones.
“I’d think about coming twice,” Richter says. “The show is different with each cast. I think both of them have some really great comics and some really great singers. There are bright futures here.”
Between the Mainstage season and Summer Music Theatre, this is Muhlenberg’s fifth production of “Pirates.” Members of past productions are invited to return to campus for a reunion reception after the performance on Saturday, Nov. 5.
The last production, in 2005, featured what Richter calls “an all-star cast” of actors who have gone on to high-profile success, including Frankie J. Grande (“Rock of Ages,” “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway), George Psomas (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “South Pacific” on Broadway), and Michael Biren (national tour of “Billy Elliot”), among others.
“The Pirate King was one of my favorite roles at Muhlenberg,” say Psomas, who played the fierce but loveable rogue in Richter’s last production. “Who doesn’t want to sing that incredible music, lead a band of pirates, and carry a sword? The experience taught me so much about playing into the unique style and comedy of Gilbert and Sullivan, and it also taught me that I am capable of growing mutton chops.”
Along with “HMS Pinafore” and “The Mikado,” “The Pirates of Penzance” stands the test of time as one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most widely produced and well-received operettas, Richter says. Its wry humor, clever lyrics, and catchy tunes make it popular even 136 years after its premiere.
“The play was written by the best comic writer of his time and the best composer of his time,” Richter says. “It’s a parody of 19th century melodramas and 19th century grand opera. All kinds of zany plot devices happen. Modern audiences have the best time with it. It’s opera for people who think operas are ridiculous.”
The production is family friendly, and young audiences are encouraged to attend. Children who attend the matinee performance on Sunday, Nov. 6 dressed as pirates can attend for just $4.
Thursday, Nov. 3 will be an Accessible Performance, with Open Captioning for patrons with hearing loss and Audio Description for patrons who are blind or low-vision. Please reserve tickets in advance for the accessible section of the performance by calling Jess Bien at 484-664-3087 or emailing [email protected]
“The Pirates of Penzance” will be performed in the Empie Theatre, in the Baker Center for the Arts. Performances are Friday, Oct. 28, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 29, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 30, at 2 p.m.; Nov. 3-5, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 6, at 2 p.m. Regular admission is $22. Youth and student tickets are $8, and groups of 15 or more can purchase discount tickets for $16. Tickets and information are available at muhlenberg.edu/theatre or 484-664-3333.