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Civic’s ‘Pirates’ production a delight from stem to stern

Sun., Sept. 27, 2009

It’s hard to imagine a better start to the Spokane Civic Theatre season than “The Pirates of Penzance,” by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Here’s a show that reaches back to the best classic theater traditions, yet is full of modern snap and Monty Python-like fun. The hero, Frederic (Russell Seaton) isn’t above doing an Elvis hip swivel.

This production is also an ideal example of the collaborative nature of great theater. Let me just list a few of the people who contribute crucially to the almost total success of this show:

•Director Yvonne A.K. Johnson, who fills the show with nonstop comic business involving swords, candlesticks, parasols, ship’s wheels, Queen Victoria and just about anything else that catches her creative eye. She is also responsible for the bright, brisk pace.

•Choreographers Troy Nickerson and Jillian Wylie, who create some of the best comic dance numbers I’ve seen at the Civic, including a Chaplinesque number with the baton-wielding constables and the high-energy “With Cat-Like Tread.”

•Music director Trudy Harris, who delivers the memorable and infectious Arthur Sullivan music with a fine pit orchestra.

•Set designer David Baker and technical director Peter Hardie, who create a set-filling pirate ship, complete with figureheads, crow’s-nests and yardarms, and then in the second act, a gloomy chapel with ruined, artful arches. The silhouetted “reveal” of the ship was worth some oohs and aahs all by itself.

•Jan Wanless and the rest of the costume crew, who fill the stage with dashing buccaneers and sunny Victorian maidens.

And then there’s the big, boisterous cast.

Yes, they, too, hit home runs – although a cricket metaphor would be more apt for this most British of shows.

The showstopper, without a doubt is Doug Dawson, as Major-General Stanley. He delivers a flawless and hilarious “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” with a great ear for both the diction and the music. It’s a lightning-fast tongue-twister of a patter song, made even funnier by his Python-like appearance, all skinny legs and giant mutton chops.

The core of the show is handled exceptionally well by a quartet of fine singer-actors: Seaton as Frederic, Andrea Dawson as Mabel, Michael J. Muzatko as the Pirate King and Darnelle Preston as Ruth. I tried, at one point, to figure out who had the best voice among the four, until coming to the conclusion that all are thoroughly professional. Yes, the Civic is an amateur theater, but all four are vocal music pros in their day jobs.

It would take far more space than I have here to describe the flair they bring to their characters, the clever way they have with comic business and the confidence with which they sing these sometimes-tricky operetta pieces.

All I can say is, there can’t be too many other community theaters that can deliver something as ambitious as full-scale Gilbert & Sullivan with such high production values and high musical quality.

And by the way, don’t hesitate to bring the kids. Some children sitting behind me on opening night clearly loved the tender-hearted pirates and laughed hard at the big Keystone Kops chase scene. The Civic should be proud for breathing so much life into a nearly 130-year-old classic.

“The Pirates of Penzance” continues through Oct. 25. Call (509) 325-2507 for tickets.


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