Audience Favorite: Pirates at Lamplighters

Molly Colin on July 28, 2014

San Francisco’s Lamplighters Music Theatre kicks off their 62nd season with a swashbuckling perennial Gilbert & Sullivan favorite, The Pirates of Penzance.

Jane Erwin Hammett, who made her debut as Mabel in the opera and with Lamplighters in a 1983 production, directs the show. Lamplighters resident music director Baker Peeples conducts some of composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist W.S. Gilbert's best-loved songs, including "For I Am a Pirate King" and "Poor Wand’ring One." The show opens in Walnut Creek on Aug. 1, with performances in Mountain View, San Francisco, and Livermore through Aug. 24.

Hammett, who directed Lamplighters' 2006 Pirates, has restaged it with some changes. "It's essentially the same production," she said, in a telephone interview. The Lamplighters presented Pirates in 2010 and in 2012 they presented a sing-along production of the Gilbert & Sullivan classic.

The Pirates of Penzance is a tale of tender-hearted pirates, who wear eye patches, not eyeliner. They've a soft spot for orphans and poetry. The players include a squadron of bumbling British bobbies, a bookish Major-General well-versed in everything but military matters, and his bevy of beautiful maiden daughters.

Frederic, an orphan, whose nearly deaf nursemaid mistakenly apprentices him to a pirate instead of to a pilot, yearns for one of the beautiful daughters, Mabel. The apprenticeship binds Frederic to serve his pirate captain until his 21st birthday. That is not to say it is his 21st year: Born on Feb. 29, Frederic technically only has a birthday every leap year, or every four years. Despite his attraction to Mabel, he feels duty bound to remain a pirate another 63 years.

Pirates of Penzance opened on New Year's Eve in 1879 in New York City. The opera was the first Gilbert & Sullivan work to premiere in the United States, and launched the British duo's international career. Sullivan’s rousing score and Gilbert’s comic lyrics created unforgettable melodies and tongue-twisting songs for the show, such as the pattering "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General."

Gilbert & Sullivan often parodied noted composers. In The Pirates of Penzance Sullivan's nod to grand opera, Verdi specifically, is ubiquitous. In particular, Mabel's coloratura soprano aria "Poor Wand'ring One" parodies Violetta's "Sempre Libera" from La traviata. The song is in the same key and has an identical cadenza. Sullivan also satirizes the Anvil Chorus in Il trovatore in part of his song "With Catlike Tread," which later became the tune for the popular campfire tune, "Hail, Hail, the Gangs All Here."

Founded in 1952, the Lamplighters' repertoire includes all surviving G&S works and a select group of comic operas and classic musicals by other composers. This production of Pirates features Samuel Faustine and Robert Vann alternating the role of Frederic. Elena Galván and Kaia Richards take turns trilling the high notes of "Poor Wand'ring One" while portraying Mabel. F. Lawrence Ewing reprises his 2006 role as Major-General Stanley.

Other cast members include Chris Uzelac as Samuel, the pirate lieutenant; Ben Brady and Charles Martin as the Pirate King. Sonia Gariaeff and Deborah Rosengaus alternate as Ruth, pirate maid of all work. Susanna Ketron and Talia Trozzo play Kate. Lindsey Rae Johnson portrays Isabel. Steve Goodman and Robby Stafford round out the ensemble taking turns as sergeant of police.

The show's continued draw for opera goers is part of the Gilbert & Sullivan magic, according to Hammett.

"There's something about Pirates of Penzance that audiences respond to," she said. "It's the struggle between duty and what our heart wants to do, and it's still relevant today."