Review by Nan Lincoln
ELLSWORTH — Ok, so there’s a lot – to contemporary sensibilities – of politically incorrect stuff in the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “The Pirates of Penzance.”
The libretto is full of male chauvinism, ageism, body shaming, not to mention looting and pillaging pirates. But never have these out-of-fashion activities – except for pirates, of course, which are curiously very much in fashion – been so hilariously and musically explored.
The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Maine made this point in fine fashion at their opening night performance last Friday evening at the Grand Auditorium.
First, Clayton W. Smith’s orchestra deserves a standing ovation for its fabulous overture, interlude and accompaniment throughout the performance. With 20-plus members, it looked and sounded as if Smith had managed to, um, pirate half the Bangor Symphony Orchestra for this show.
Despite their numbers, however, they never overwhelmed the blessedly unamplified singers. Special mention to Delight Immonen, the oboist who lived up to her delicious name; Lynettte Woods, whose percussion was practically another lead character; and first flutist Adam Smith, who was as pleasing to look at as he was to hear.
While the orchestra pit was full-to-bursting with musical talent, the stage, by comparison, often seemed a bit unpopulated, with a smallish band of pirates and an even smaller bevvy of beauteous daughters for them to abduct.
There is much to be said for quality over quantity, however, and this well-seasoned ensemble, plus a darling couple of UMaine students as the two lovers, Frederick and Mabel, has quality to spare. The opening number, a pirate drinking song, was as robust and raucous as one could wish for, and every man jack of ‘em made a convincing crew – even the parrot and the ones played by women. A standout here was Michael Smith, who handled several solos with roguish glee.
For her fifth time playing the hapless Governess Ruth, Debra Hangge was as excellent as ever in this role, bringing both stridency and pathos to the desperate old cougar.
Also in fine voice was veteran Pirate King Roland Dube. He and Hangge have such fine diction that their words could have been cut out with sharp scissors.
But when it comes to diction, no one has a greater challenge in this show than the character of the Major General, whose “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” is the patter song of all patter songs. As it happens, no one could meet this challenge better than Joe Marshall. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating that Marshall was born for this role. With his booming baritone, perfect timing, surprisingly lithesome body language and marvelous facial expressions, Marshall not only owns the spotlight, one has a feeling that if the electricity went out, he’d still be brightly lit by internal combustion.
But back to that darling couple of UMaine students, Kayla M’Lynn Gayton and Zach Fisher, who are an actual romantic couple off stage. These two brought both believable chemistry to their roles and some gorgeous, spine-tingling vocals – she, a sweet, lilting soprano; he, a dreamy lyric tenor. Also, they look age appropriate in a cast that largely plays much younger than their actual ages.
Once Mabel appears in the story, she fills an important soprano spot in the women’s chorus as well. Standouts in that chorus are Emily Homer and Dorothy R.A. Wheatcraft, who deliver a couple of fine solos.
For the scene involving a cowering local constabulary, the age of the cast rather enhances the humor. With most of these bumbling bobbies literally being graybeards, their timidity and confusion is both hilarious and, for many of us in the audience, familiar. David Porter as their ineffectual Sergeant is a scream, as are Mabel and the women’s chorus, who shrilly urge them on to fight the pirates until their heroic deaths and certain slaughter.
Director Leslie Michaud mines this scene and many others for comic gold.
Linda Grindle did a fine job of cobbling together some appropriate costumes, as did Shawna Farley with the props.
While some of Elaine Bard’s sets seemed understated, the night cemetery scene with handsome stained glass windows and statuary was neat.
There were a couple of tech glitches opening night, but these must be forgiven, as tech rehearsal was snowed out.
So, when this most recent snow has presumably cleared, get to The Grand and abandoned yourself to some very piratical, if politically incorrect, fun.
Performances at The Grand are on Friday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 18 and 19, at 2 p.m.
Call the box office at 667-9500 or go to www.grandonline for information and tickets.