The Spokane Civic Theatre breaks a long Gilbert & Sullivan drought Friday by opening its season with “The Pirates of Penzance,” an 1880 comic romp about pirates and kidnapped maidens.
Director Yvonne A.K. Johnson said she intends to do full justice to the storied Gilbert & Sullivan tradition with this big, showy, rambunctious production. The show has a 26-member cast and a seven-piece orchestra.
All four lead roles will be played by vocal music teachers in the region: Michael Muzatko as the Pirate King, Russell Seaton as Frederic, Andrea Dawson as Mabel and Darnelle Preston as Ruth.
The Civic’s set designers are going all out, building a vast pirate ship that extends all the way above the proscenium. Pirates will be swinging from the mizzenmast.
Yet what, exactly, is the Gilbert & Sullivan tradition? We thought you might want to brush up on your Gilbert & Sullivan:
• W.S. Gilbert was a writer of musical parodies and satiric verse in magazines in Victorian England. Arthur Sullivan was an up-and-coming composer of mostly serious music, such as oratorios and cantatas. In 1871, an impresario convinced them to work together on a comic opera titled “Thespis.” It was, more or less, a bomb. Critics referred to it as a “grotesque opera.”
• Another concert agent convinced them to give it a second try in 1875 with a comic operetta called “Trial by Jury.” This one was a hit – funny, satirical and filled with top-quality music. One reviewer complained only that it was “too short.”
• They went on to create a frenzy in London and New York with a string of hits: “The Sorcerer,” “HMS Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance,” “Patience,” “Iolanthe,” “Princess Ida” and “The Mikado.” These operettas managed to make fun of the standard melodramatic operas of the day, while actually being superior to many of them. Gilbert later explained this by saying, “We resolved that our plots, however ridiculous, should be coherent.”
• “The Pirates of Penzance” employed one of Gilbert’s favorite comic tricks: turning the world topsy-turvy. For instance, the pirates are quite well-mannered and take particular care to be kind to orphans.
• The very title of “The Pirates of Penzance” contains a joke. Penzance was a staid resort town filled with pensioners – the last place you’d find pirates. It was the equivalent of calling a show “The Hell’s Angels of West Palm Beach.”
• A portion of the song “With Catlike Tread” later was “borrowed” to become the tune of a popular American ditty, “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here.”
• Some of the songs could have come right out of a boozy London music hall, including the major general’s “patter song” (“I am the very model of a modern major general”), which is rattled off at speeds a hip-hop artist might envy. Try singing this fast: “I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus.” Doug Dawson will take on that task in the Civic’s production.
• Gilbert & Sullivan remain popular around the world, and “Pirates of Penzance” has been especially enduring. It has been revived 26 times on Broadway alone. In 1980, Linda Ronstadt starred in a hit Central Park outdoor production. It made an instant star out of Kevin Kline, who played a particularly loony Pirate King.
Yet the Civic hasn’t done “The Pirates of Penzance” since the 1976-1977 season – or any Gilbert & Sullivan, for that matter.
So here’s your chance to bask in one of the brightest and giddiest of English theatrical traditions.
One reminder to Civic patrons: All evening shows this year will begin at 7:30 p.m. There will be no 8 p.m. curtain times.