ELLSWORTH — I must confess I had some mixed feelings about attending the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Maine’s new production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” which opened at The Grand this past weekend.
As much as I have enjoyed this company’s largely excellent performances with its dedicated ensemble, several of whom have been at it since the society launched its first operetta “The Gondoliers” back in 1977, that was, in truth, part of my concern.
Some of my favorite performers are no longer here or unable to perform and others are getting too old (about my age actually) to be convincingly playing robust, dread pirates and giggling, girlish maidens.
I should have known better than to doubt the ingenuity of this company or the G&S ouvre’s ability to attract new and exciting young performers to the fold.
This current production, which continues at The Grand March 17-19, really couldn’t be more fun.
A full orchestra, led by stage and music director Deiran Manning, presaged what would turn out to be a terrific show with an excellent overture of all the familiar operetta tunes, and as soon as our motley crew of pirates stomped onstage it was clear we were in for a rollicking good time.
Pepin Mittelhauser was certainly having a blast playing the bellicose Pirate King, strutting about and singing loudly and lustily about his exploits in a booming baritone. Before he was done we were all signed up for the voyage.
Signing off this pirate ship, however, is young Frederic (Zachary Field), who we learn from his former nanny, Ruth (Debra Hangge), was mistakenly apprenticed to these Penzance pirates in error. Now that he has turned 21 he believes he can finally end his apprenticeship and — as the young man is bound by duty and honor — start hunting his former shipmates down instead.
Ruth has her own plans as well. Since Frederic has never been exposed to any woman other than herself, she hopes he will take her with him.
But of course, their plans are thwarted in typical topsy-turvy fashion. Frederic learns that as a leap-year baby he has only had five birthdays, thus far, and still has 17 more to go before his apprenticeship ends; and Ruth realizes all is lost when Frederic runs into a bevy of pretty young girls out for a stroll on the beach.
Debra Hangge has, for all intents and purposes, claimed the role of Ruth for the past four decades and since it has been a good five or so years since “Pirates” was last performed, I had to wonder if she was still up to the demanding role.
Yes, she is.
If Hangge has lost some power in her upper register, she can still fill the auditorium at the lower end of her range and her acting and enunciation are so good, there is no doubt what she is saying even if some words are lost. As Frederic, Field’s slightly nasal but tuneful tenor is a great pairing with Hangge’s throaty mezzo. Their duet “Faithless Woman” is wonderful.
Also wonderful is that moment when Mabel (Celeste Mittelhauser), the most lovely of all those beach-going sisters, lets it be known in “Poor Wandering One” that she will take on the young Frederic in her trilling, thrilling entrance.
I last saw Mittlehauser in “The Gondoliers” a few years back, and while I described her Casilda as “pinch-faced and eye rolling,” I fell madly in love with both her acting and powerful singing.
It was no surprise to me that she could pull off the sweet, idealistic Mabel as perfectly as she did the impatient spinster Casilda, and her absolutely lovely soprano has only gotten more so.
Although Manning’s direction is, at times, a bit static with singers standing and delivering in clumps — a hazard of having a large cast on a small stage — there are also some inspired moments, such as when Mabel’s sisters move en masse to eavesdrop on Frederic’s and her wooing and when Mabel both distances herself from the besotted young pirate and beckons him to come closer.
Another G&S vet who still has all the right stuff is Roland Dube, who plays the Major General and father to that bevy of beach beauties. Dube can still rattle off a good patter song and when necessary, waft about the stage like a large fluttering moth.
The most delightful interlude in “Pirates” for me has always been the arrival of the constabulary, who have been summoned to round up and arrest the pirates but are clearly conflicted about their “unhappy” lot. As their trepidatious sergeant, Joe Marshall once again steals the show with the impeccable delivery of both his notes and his words. In short, he is hilarious.
Shout out here, also, to Aiden Pasha, who clearly marches off to his doom to the beat — or should I say sway — of a different drummer.
Other standouts are Sara Phillips as Edith who, like her stage sister Mabel, also has a lovely soprano and some fine-tuned acting chops, as does Sam Hallman as the piratical first mate.
The two sets — a beach and a midnight garden — designed by Peter Miller at first seemed a bit bland, but when all the wonderfully costumed characters stream in to fill the stage (kudos here to costumer Daaby Tingle) his vision makes absolute sense.
So, for a jolly good time call 667-9500 or go to www.grandonline.org to reserve tickets for one of the last three performances of “Pirates of Penzance,” Friday, March 17, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, March 18, at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, March 19, at 2 p.m.