Gilbert & Sullivan's scalawag "Pirates" sail into Pittsfield
PITTSFIELD — After too long an absence from Berkshire stages, the music, mirth and mayhem of Victorian operetta masters Gilbert and Sullivan returns with Barrington Stage Company's production of "The Pirates of Penzance," beginning previews Friday night, before opening on Wednesday at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, where it is scheduled to run through Aug. 13.
In a typically quirky plot, a young apprentice planning to leave his gang of gentlemanly pirates encounters the winsome daughter of a "modern" Major-General, resulting in chaos when hapless policemen, swashbuckling pirates and her many unwed sisters collide.
Artistic director Julianne Boyd has placed the production in the care of director John Rando and choreographer Joshua Bergasse, the team that led BSC's revival of "On the Town" to Broadway with resounding success.
The 22-member cast and 10-piece orchestra is rich in Broadway talent, among them many Tony Award winners and nominees. "Hair" star Will Swenson is taking time off from preparing for the birth of his first child with wife Audra McDonald to fill the boots of the "Pirate King." Popular leading man Kyle Dean Massey and British actress Scarlett Strallen, star of "Mary Poppins" on three continents, play young lovers Frederic and Mabel.
"Married With Children" TV star David Garrison wraps his tongue around "modern" Major-General Stanley's famous patter song, and Jane Carr of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" fame plays nursemaid Ruth.
In an adventurous move, designer Beowulf Boritt's three-masted pirate ship spills out into the auditorium, ready for climbing and jumping and swinging on ropes, with some audience members sitting on stage amidst the melee.
Gilbert and Sullivan might not recognize this modern incarnation. In 1980, the century-old, somewhat staid staple of British operatic societies and boys' boarding schools gained a new lease on life when theater legend Joseph Papp staged a ground-breaking "Pirates" in New York's Central Park, winning Pirate King Kevin Kline a Tony among its many awards after the production transferred to Broadway. Director Wilford Leach's musical-theater approach to Gilbert & Sullivan has influenced revivals ever since.
On a steamy day in a Boys & Girls Club gym, Swenson joined Rando and Bergasse during a break from rehearsals.
When Boyd first proposed "Pirates," "I was very excited," recalled Rando, especially after Bergasse came on board.
The creative pairing was a match made in Pittsfield, put together by Boyd in 2011 for BSC's "Guys and Dolls." So far they have created three shows for BSC and seven altogether, with two more in the pipeline.
"We make each other laugh and inspire each other," Rando said. "Josh has a great sense of what you can do with choreography and how to tell a story, and just amazing athleticism combined with lyricism."
"As a director, John loves to use dance as much as possible," Bergasse added, "and that makes it so much more fun for me."
Both appreciate the relaxed atmosphere Barrington Stage offers, letting them try new things "without feeling pressure from executives.
"We feel like we're part of a larger picture, bringing great work to this community," Rando said. "In the Berkshires there will be many Gilbert and Sullivan fans and we hope we raise the standard of what they're used to. But we're also hoping to introduce a whole new crowd that didn't know their work."
"It's such a weird, wonderful story, these gentlemen pirates who really just want to be married and lead domestic lives," he added. "You want them to find their happiness and joy, and they go to great lengths to get it."
To perform Gilbert and Sullivan successfully, Rando said, "first you need an exceptional voice, and this amazing dexterity with word and language, not only how to say it and wrap your mouth around it, but how to make it real. You also need an arsenal of physical art that is surprising, contradictory, thrilling at times."
He has found all that in Swenson, who has wanted to play the Pirate King since being cast in the role in a workshop version in college.
"I wrote both these guys the second I got the part," Swenson explained, "and said, 'don't hold back, I'm game for ropes and dancing full out and doing crazy stuff.'" He even started training his climbing muscles on a rope he hung from a backyard tree, "but I got too sore so I quit," he confessed, amid peals of laughter.
"I'm reminded every day how good material will play forever," Swenson said. "It's written in really high language, with lots of wordplay and situations so silly and characters so singular that it just works."
He appreciates that Rando and Bergasse are open to creative suggestions. When everybody is collaborating toward the same goal," he said, "you take a lot more pride in it if you feel part of the process and the vision, and not just a puppet."
As opening night nears, Swenson remains in awe of his fellow cast members. "Scarlett sings like an angel and Kyle's voice is so stupidly gorgeous, I can say this as a straight man, he's so sexy when he sings, the girls are going to lose their minds!"
What: "The Pirates of Penzance." Music by Arthur Sullivan. Libretto by W.S. Gilbert. Directed by John Rando; choreographed by Joshua Bergasse; musical direction by Darren R. Cohen
Who: Barrington Stage Company
Where: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield
When: Now through Aug. 13 (press opening, 7 p.m. Wednesday). Evenings — Tuesday and Wednesday at 7; Thursday through Saturday at 8. Matinees — Friday at 2; Sunday at 5
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; at Boyd-Quinson Mainstage box office
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