On Tuesday, Aug. 4 the curtain rose on the 2015-2016 season at St. Paul’s Ordway Theater.
The first act: Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance.”
The opera, written in 1879, tells the story of Frederic, a young man forced to be an apprentice to a band of pirates until his 21st birthday.
The story begins at the start of his 21st year as he prepares to leave the band of pirates behind on the shores of Penzance.
As the curtain rises and the first few notes ring out the classical elements are everywhere.
The set is simple.
It features an ocean and sky in the background with a few levels disguised as boulders on the stage.
It is changed only once in between the first and second act, relying on lyrics and blocking to transport the audience into the different scenes.
The first song begins with an orchestral introduction to a choral-sounding musical number with detailed lyrics.
Coined a comic opera mainly because the pair wrote before “musical comedy” had become a genre, it is also one because almost the entire show is sung.
Much like Les Miserable, the story is told through the musical numbers, which showcase the performers’ voices by featuring long vocal runs spanning several octaves.
Actors Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Frederic) and Anne Eisendrath (Mabel) conquered a number of these runs, hitting incredible high notes with seeming ease.
Both had to be incredibly articulate as many of the songs were lyrically challenging.
Many of the numbers strayed from the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus layout to simply being dialogue set to music.
However, the most challenging song does follow a more traditional pattern. “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” which Gary Briggle (Major-General Stanley) and the cast executed with precision, has 355 words and is performed at an aggressive tempo, finishing in just under three minutes.
Briggle’s performance alone was standing-ovation worthy.
Although there were no ballads, nor modern-day love songs, Herdlicka and Eisendrath showed incredible vocal strength by maintaining the clarity, diction and tonal quality throughout the show. And each had at least one jaw-dropping high note for even the best of tenors or sopranos.
This traditional show is 136 years old, but despite its age it didn’t feel out of date.
In a time when many shows are altering their scripts to match modern humor, “Pirates'” satire fit right in.
In a show that could easily be dated, it poked fun of what was.
Whether written by Gilbert or interpreted by the Ordway, the characterization by Major-General’s Wards was at times so comically over the top it showed the ridiculousness of the times.
Such was the case during “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain.”
The Wards flittered out in long pastel dresses, presumably going for a hike. They skipped and twittered about the stage, singing in a high soprano, looking like children when they were really young women.
The exaggerated excitement and girlishness shed light on how ridiculous it is that women were expected to constantly maintain a youthful innocence until they were married off. And also that they were expected to hike in dresses.
Caroline Innerbichler (Rose) owned the stage during “Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast,” as she lusted after Frederic while he looked away but quickly regained womanly composure when he faced the ladies. And again in “How Beautifully Blue The Sky,” while eavesdropping on Frederic and Mabel’s duet.
Even the ingénue Mabel (Eisendrat) turns out to be more of a hero than Frederic when she helps fend off the pirates.
Theater is still very much alive and well in the Twin Cities, but in a time when there are so many other forms of entertainment, “Pirates” was a perfect choice as a season opener
It brought back the richness that was going to see a performance.
Being in the audience, it felt like this was a show seen during the time when theater was an extravagance and those who could afford to go did so in style.
With elaborate choral numbers, witty humor and an uplifting tale, “Pirates of Penzance” is a classical piece fit for a modern audience.