For the fifth time, Debra Hangge will perform the role of Ruth in the “Pirates of Penzance,” which opens at the Grand Auditorium on Friday, Feb. 10, at 7 p.m. ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

‘Pirates’ headed for the Grand!



It wouldn’t be winter in Down East Maine without a performance by the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Maine. The group opens the operetta “The Pirates of Penzance” on Friday, Feb. 10, at the Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth.

This show marks the fifth time in some 30 years that Debra Hangge has strapped on a cutlass and donned a tri-cornered hat to play Ruth, the hapless, hard-of-hearing nursemaid who has mistakenly apprenticed her charge, Frederick, to a band of pirates rather than a pilot. Upon realizing her error, the faithful Ruth joins this crew of rather inept marauders.

“The subtitle of this play is ‘Slave of Duty,’” Hangge said. “Like Frederick, who is bound to the pirate life by duty, Ruth is bound to him by her duty to see what she’s done through. This behavior is not all that unfamiliar to me.”

Less familiar to her perhaps are the more “cougarish” aspects of Ruth’s character. When the story opens, Frederick is about to turn 21, and Ruth, pushing 50, has developed a rather unseemly romantic interest in the young man.

When she first started playing the role in the mid-80s, Hangge was a young woman playing a couple of decades older.

“They don’t have to use as much makeup these days,” she said.

It is a big role with some serious musical challenges, including that staple of the G&S oeuvre, the patter song. In this instance, “A Paradox” revs up into breakneck speed, as does the little dance that accompanies it.

“Clayton [Musical Director Clayton M. Smith] very kindly suggested slowing down my solo in that one,” she said. “But I actually found it easier to do it faster. I’ve gotten so accustomed to that cadence, it threw off my timing to do it slower.”

Unlike many of the performers in this troupe of amateurs, Hangge has a college degree in music. She majored in the subject at Bob Jones University, a Christian college in South Carolina. That is where she met her husband, Michael. It is through Michael, whose father was stationed at the Winter Harbor Naval Base when he brought his sweetheart home to meet the parents, that she found her forever home in Maine.

“I’m originally from Pennsylvania,” she said. “But both Michael and I fell in love with this area, so after his parents were transferred, we stayed. I’ve been here so long now and become such a devoted Mainer I sometimes forget that I’m from away.”

She credits her 30-plus years on the local stage as playing a large role in helping her assimilate into her new community.

“It was my mother-in-law who got me involved with the G&S Society,” she said. “I’d never heard of Gilbert and Sullivan before. Oh, I had heard some the music – in cartoons often, with different words. But it wasn’t until I performed my first ‘Pirates’ that I realized the tune of ‘Hail Hail the Gang’s All Here’ came from this operetta.”

She said she quickly fell in love with the songs and humor of the G&S operettas, especially this one.

“I mean, who doesn’t love to play a pirate?” she asked.

There are some musical roles, however, that don’t appeal to her as much.

“Some of the more contemporary musicals can be uncomfortable,” she said, explaining that when she took on the title role in “Kiss Me Kate” for the Grand Players, she hadn’t realized she would have to call another character a bastard. “That was really difficult for me,” she said, clearly still uncomfortable saying that word.

Although she has since found several non-G&S musicals with suitable content – “Beauty and the Beast,” “Man of la Mancha,” for instance – she pretty much confines her singing to the church choir and these operettas.

“It does take a lot of time and energy,” she said, “but these people have become family to me. I look forward to reuniting with them every winter. We have a strong bond both on and off stage.

She said it’s a true ensemble, and difficult divas have been rare; then pauses and amends the statement. “Actually, I can’t recall any divas.”

This does not mean the society doesn’t welcome new members, she said, enthusing here about the newcomers this year, tenor Zachary Fisher and soprano Kayla Gayton, who play Frederick and his love, Mabel. Apparently, they are not only accomplished singers and music education majors at the University of Maine but a romantic couple in reality as well.

We were talking in the hallway of the rehearsal venue between scenes that involve Ruth, and it became apparent that Hangge also was listening to what was going in the other room when she apologized: “I’m sorry, they’re getting close to my entrance now,” and the interview concluded.

In a minute or so, the upstanding Hangge became Ruth again, piteously imploring Frederick, who had just discovered that there are other fish in the sea (young, pretty ones), not to leave her.

“Pirates of Penzance” is one of the most popular of the G&S operettas, if not the most popular, and for good reason. It has wonderful songs and a terrific story, and it offers its directors a great opportunity to add in fun bits of stage business. This year’s director Leslie Michaud has some hilarious surprises in store – and of course it has pirates!

Performances at the Grand are scheduled for Fridays, Feb. 10 and 17, at 7 p.m.; Saturdays, Feb. 11 and 18, at 2 p.m.; and Sundays, Feb. 12 and 19, at 2 p.m.

Call the box office at 667-9500 or visit www.grandonline.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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