Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Very Model of a Modern Entertainment

Nothing opened on North Coast stages two weekends ago, and nothing opens this coming weekend, or as far as I know for several more weekends. But this past weekend two shows opened, both musicals. Apart from the box office wisdom of this, it caused me particular problems. As NC Journal reviewer they presented me with two choices: choose one to review this week and one next week, which would mean that one would be unreviewed until late in its run. Or review both but--because of space/word limits--give each of them half the review they would have had separately. For me, it meant twice the work for half the money. But that's the choice I made---this time.

So in Stage Matters in this week's Journal, you'll find reviews of Humboldt Light Opera's Pirates of Penzance and Ferndale Rep's Rent. What follows right here, right now, is an expanded version of the Pirates review. In a few days I'll post an expanded version of the Rent review.

Maybe it’s the current affection for piratical affectations, or maybe just the prevailing local approach to musicals, but Humboldt Light Opera Company dispenses with the smirks and self-consciousness that can mar Gilbert and Sullivan revivals. Instead they present a buoyant, colorful and joyful Pirates of Penzance at Humboldt State’s Van Duzer Theatre.

James Gadd and Fiona Ryder reunite (from last year’s The Light in the Piazza) as the appealing skull-and-bones-crossed lovers. Gadd is as handsome as any classic matinee idol, and a capable singer. Fiona Ryder brought a youthful energy that immediately made her credible as the boldest of the innocent young ladies, and the part showed off her voice to thrilling effect. Bill Ryder as the stalwart Pirate King, the dynamic Cindy Cress as Ruth and Ellsworth Pence as the Major General (his entrance is a high point) are just the most obvious standouts in a huge and capable cast. The dances, especially those choreographed and led by Craig Benson, add another layer of delight.

Musical direction by David Powell and Katri Pitts, the orchestra conducted by Justin Sousa, choreography by Shaelan Salas and sound by Justin Takata admirably support the local gold standard of singing. Carol McWhorter Ryder’s wise direction together with Jayson Mohatt’s economical but elegant and useful set and lighting design, and everyone involved in creating the colorful costumes, filled the Van Duzer with exciting clarity.

The set was basically simple, but every piece of it was both well-executed and functional. The pirate ship was a wow, and got things off to a great start, but it left the stage for most of the evening. The backdrop for the rest of the first act was very basic, but a sun in the sky and a few rock formations for people to hide behind and climb around on were all that was needed. The second act backdrop was more dramatic--the black sky with twinkling stars, but the sets of columns--which looked like they might have been recycled from the piazza--were again both elegant visually and used very well. All of this worked very well for this particular show, in which realism is not a factor, but I suspect this general approach could work for many others.

There were two other elements to the staging. There was a platform in front of the orchestra pit where several songs were staged, notably the second act love duet. There was also action in the aisles. I'm normally not a fan of this--I believe this is the audience's space, and actors running up and down the aisles (often enough, carrying weapons) is unnecessarily dangerous to both audience and actors. But in this show the action was much more benign--the charming daughters floated by.

I might also mention that in the orchestra pit there was in fact an orchestra--without a covering, so the musicians could see the actors and the actors could see the orchestra, helping both.

Carol Ryder's direction was so impressive because she kept the stage full of color and movement, and used the depth of the stage to do so (especially for the dancing), but most of the singing was done as close to the audience as possible--usually downstage center, or on that platform that was practically in the audience. These singers generally have the most training of any in local productions, and operatic voices like Fiona Ryder's carry beautifully, but even so--director Ryder made sure by her staging that the audience was going to hear every word and every note.

Two of the singers wore body mikes, and there were floor mikes across the stage, but once again, it was the staging that guaranteed this show would be seen and heard to its best advantage, especially in the sometimes troublesome Van Duzer.

HLOC is a community theatre organization, but I doubt if you could find a professional theatre version of The Pirates of Penzance with as perfect a production and as winning a cast. They highlight all the humor, eternal and historical, with skillful song and dance, romantic and euphorical. They ply us with a plot that is at best fantastical, with certitude and grace, droll and enthusiastical. With audience in tow, they sail to this attainment: more ecstatic than dramatic, this is the very model of a modern entertainment.

HLOC’s The Pirates of Penzance continues in the Van Duzer on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm until August 21, with Sunday matinees at 2 on August 8 and 15.

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