CORVALLIS — The action in W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s classic light opera “The Pirates of Penzance” relies on several “ingenious paradoxes” in the plot.
So director George Caldwell had no problem adding yet another twist on the beloved musical romance by changing the traditional setting from Victorian England to the coast near Savannah, Ga., in the 1850s.
“Plus, why do the same thing as everybody else?,” he said.
Of course, a few small adaptations had to be made to the script. The Major General became a plantation owner and his daughters Southern belles. The British police became the Georgia militia, the pirates took on a Caribbean feel and allegiance to the queen changed to fervent feeling for the State of Georgia.
“State’s rights were everything back then, so I had no problem changing it,” Caldwell said.
“‘Pirates’ is a wonderful send-up of social hypocrisy, satirizing the absurd nature of classicism and aristocratic rule,” Caldwell said. “The audience will hardly have to be reminded that in less than 10 years the entire nation will be ravaged by a conflict largely initiated by the actions of an entire class of ‘royal’ gentry.”
The production has been produced in cooperation with OSU Theatre, the OSU Department of Music and the Friends of OSU Opera.
“The Pirates of Penzance,” which opened on Thursday, will continue with shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15; and at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19-21, at the Withycombe Hall Main Stage Theatre, at 30th Street and Campus Way on the Oregon State University campus.
This production marks 100 years of OSU Theatre producing works by Gilbert and Sullivan. The first OSU Gilbert and Sullivan production was “The Mikado” in 1909.
Fittingly, the “Pirates of Penzance” will be the largest cast to ever appear on the Withycombe stage, according to Caldwell. There are about 60 actors involved.
Costume master Barbara Mason had her work cut out for her creating the numerous costumes for the play. Many of the Southern belles’ hoop skirts took more than four yards of fabric apiece.
This year’s production also wraps up a run of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous work on stage at OSU, following the “H.M.S. Pinafore” in 2007 and “The Mikado” in 2008.
“They’re popular, they bring in the audience ... it’s inoffensive,” Caldwell cited as reasons for the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition.
Another practical reason is that, due to their age, putting on the musicals costs the theater no royalties, which can often can be up to $4,500 for newer works.
Written in 1879, “Pirates of Penzance” is a story packed with ageless comedy and catchy songs such as “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” “Poor Wandering One” and “With Cat-Like Tread” — a humorous piece with lots of stomping involved.
In the play, young Frederic’s nursemaid unintentionally apprentices him to a pirate (instead of a pilot), until his 21st birthday, an arrangement that proves troublesome for his love life later on.
The “ruthless” pirates he is apprenticed to are led by a tender-hearted pirate king, who refuses to harm the weak or orphans. As a result, nearly everyone the crew meets seems to have lost their parents.
The play begins with the crew encountering a group of Southern belles. Not having seen maidens in many months, the sea-faring rogues begin their hot pursuit led by their former apprentice, Frederic, who has fallen for Mabel, the fairest of all the debutantes.
Frederic’s advances are soon impeded by Mabel’s papa, the Major General, and the state’s militia joins in as complications ensue and the play builds into a classic Gilbert-and-Sullivan comic climax.
“It’s really complex writing for its time,” Caldwell said, noting the play’s mix of serious storytelling and spoof.
“It’s so unusual,” Caldwell said, gesturing to a scene during a recent rehearsal with Frederic and Mabel. “This is the love ballad, and it’s about loneliness and being apart.”
“When he sings that they won’t be together until 1940, it’s hilarious, yet it’s written as if it is the most serious love ballad ever composed.”
Caldwell has most recently directed “The Foreigner” (November 2008), Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (January 2008) and “H.M.S. Pinafore” (August 2007) for OSU Theatre.
Tickets for the show are $14 general admission, $12 for seniors, $10 for youths/students, and $5 for OSU students. Information: 737-2784 or www.oregonstate.edu/dept/theatre.