Thar she blows! Land-ho! Those singing, dancing, prancing pirates have cast their ship upon the great shores of Columbia and weighed anchor at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia for the summer! This revamped version of a Gilbert and Sullivan classic brings rolling waves of comedy to the audience with a refreshing and revitalized love story to boot! Directed and Choreographed by Mark Minnick with Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings, this ingenious production is absurdly whimsical; an entire cast filled with unparalleled felicity and merriment the likes of which have yet to be seen upon the Toby’s stage.
Resident Set Designer David A. Hopkins is hard at work creating a fabulously secluded island as well as an impressive pirate ship for the 1880’s show. Hopkins clever designs truly take the cake for this production with rope-ladder style rigging that creates the main deck of a pirate ship right from center stage. There’s even a main mast and full rope swings for execution of fulfilling piratical jovialities. The transition from the weathered ship to the rocky island is smooth thanks to Hopkins simplistic approach. It is the painted balconies and gorgeous fountain centerpiece (with real water) seen in the second act that augment the show’s natural beauty; effortlessly creating a timeless look that matches the tranquil yet intriguing and topsy-turvy circumstances that unfold in that portion of the show.
Costume Designer Eleanor B. Dicks sets forth the whimsy of this fantasy tale in her design. The pirates look truly piratical; a sharp hybrid of seaworthy knaves and dashing rapscallions all brought together with vests, boots, and various little detailed accessories. The dresses Dicks designs for the seven daughters of Major-General Stanley cover an array of styles and colors from the bold red bonnet-topped rompers from their initial appearance to their rather formal pastel gowns with enormous skirts. It is Dicks design work with these costumes that further the scope of novelty featured in this performance.
Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings creates an astounding sound from the ensemble. During the ‘poetry’ bit of one of the longer song segments near the end of Act I, the swell of vocal prowess and strength from the entire ensemble washes over with great exuberant force. The pirates have a hearty sound, the dancing officers a crisp one; Rawlings coaching each group of the show to have a unique quality to their combined singing efforts. The result of which is a sensationally versatile show with a musical number for everyone to enjoy.
Director and Choreographer Mark Minnick puts his talent to work, sharply honing stunning performances from exceptional talent throughout the production. Finding the epitome of balance between the high-end farcically styled campy humor and the truth of the love-story opera that is being told, Minnick makes the performance an utter delight to enjoy. Despite the time period of the show, Minnick’s production never once feels dated or out of place; little hints of modernity peppered throughout sparingly to keep it jaunty and refreshing for the average audience. His Choreographic skills display a smattering of styles here and there with some notable homages to various dance routines and half the fun becomes noting these little physical dance nods, particularly during “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Minnick’s sharp eye creates precise moments of hilarity juxtaposed against honest reality; the perfect combination for any Gilbert and Sullivan show.
With a gaggle of girls playing the seven daughters of Major-General Stanley, it’s no wonder their spirits are light as the traipse through the island singing bouncy little numbers like “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain” and “What Ought We to Do?” Between their chipper dispositions and their lacey parasols, the girls make quite the first impression upon their arrival. Edith (Coby Kay Callahan) has a few featured moments of belting blasts between “Stop, Ladies, Pray!” and “What Ought We to Do?” Callahan’s voice, among several other talented Toby’s veterans, is powerful and stands out with radiance during these numbers, making her character pop to the audience’s attention.
Where there are girls there must be trouble, and keeping the girls safe from said trouble are the police team, headed by the Sergeant (David James). A true scene-stealer with his foppish tomfoolery, James puts Paula Deen to shame with the way he hams up every moment of his character’s existence. From his grandiose entrance, which leads into “When the Foeman Bares His Steel”, to his wayward silly dancing all over the fountain, all eyes fall on him whenever the police battalion is present. James brings a well-seasoned voice to the show, leading his men in several numbers including “When a Felon’s not Engaged in His Employment”, and adding heavy dashes of the high-end comic campiness every good Gilbert and Sullivan show needs. Even the baton-kick routine becomes an absurdity with James at the front; comic shenanigans never looked so amusing.
Trouble is about, and after all those police need someone to arrest. Enter the pirates! The scurvy knaves! The scallywags! The most absurd band of buccaneers you’ll ever see! Headed by their boisterous leader the Pirate King (David Jennings) the pirates make a grand good time of their moments spent aboard their ship. Numbers like “Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry” and later “A Rollicking Band of Pirates We” prove to be zesty tunes pumped out with fanciful spirit. Samuel (Jeffrey S. Shankle) is second in command to this brazen king and serves as quirky comic relief amid the rabble. Shankle’s rich bari-tenor tones lend themselves to the ensemble numbers in a most pleasing fashion. Watch closely for his wheel-barrel bit upon first encountering the daughters of the Major-General, and later during “With Cat-Like Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal” the entire comic mime routine that ensues with a potted plant.
Jennings, as the pirate leader, cuts an impressive figure in his pirate gear. His voice is bliss upon the ears, especially when it comes to belting out his longer notes at the end of numbers like “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die”. Not only is Jennings a vocal force to be reckoned with upon the stage but he lands an exceptionally crisp patter during “My Eyes are Fully Open” holding his own in this intensely insane number against Ruth and Frederic. His presence is a curious blend of pirate nobility and the perpetual motion of the ocean. Jennings spends more time leaping about— be it on the edges of the fountain or all around his ship— than he does standing still, an indefatigable energy that exudes through him for the duration of the show. He’s not too shabby with a sword either and his overall comic candor is the perfect touch to the character’s sensibilities.
Ruth (Jane C. Boyle) is a character who spends a great deal of time off-stage, but the character arc created is fierce and intense, particularly in its transition. Boyle gives an fine performance with wonderful vocal support to back up the more operatic sound behind her character’s singing. Witty, scorned, and all around determination are the characteristics that mark her portrayal best. Holding her own during “My Eyes are Fully Open”, she patters along through this race-pace song just as well as the gentlemen. Her ability to tell a story ballad in “When Frederic was a Little Lad” is both endearing and vocally sound. The dynamic surge of tension between she and Frederic during “Oh, False One, You Have Deceived Me,” is edgy -a true operatic duet that really sends her emotions flaring.
Major-General Stanley (Robert John Biedermann 125) is another quirky comic character that makes this production packed to the brim with laughter. Biedermann lives up to the lively song laid to his character’s namesake, and is the epitome of a modern Major-General. Living up the kooky old codger routine, Biedermann brings joy to the stage by the bucketful. The spoken “orphan-often” debate between he and Jennings’ Pirate King character becomes such a comic engagement of wits that it’s an absolute scream. He’s even melodic for woeful wandering lullaby “Sighing Softly to the River.. Biedermann inspires true gaiety throughout the entire cast, catching them all in rapt attention as he rolls into “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”, with each verse getting a little bit faster. Biedermann nails this number with vim, vigor, and zesty perfection with superb articulation; capturing the rhythmic essence of the patter. Biedermann is perfectly suited for the role at hand.
But what would a comic opera be without a pair of ingénues to keep things interesting? Frederic (Nick Lehan) and Mabel (Laura Whittenberger) make just such a pair and their duets are beautifully sung. Both Lehan and Whittenberger have truly gorgeous voices, with Whittenberger displaying her mastery of the soprano and coloratura ranges. Love at first sight sends them both into a state of twitterpation, Lehan’s character a bit more so than Whittenberger’s but together they glide pristinely through duets like “All is Prepared” and “Stay, Frederic, Stay!”
Lehan treats the ingénue character, who could otherwise be quite vapid and ill-purposed, with a razor-like intelligence, bordering on cleverness. His facial features find balance between animation and resting, honing in on Mark Minnick’s notion of balance between the campy elements of the show and the truth. His physicality is also well-defined, almost princely and upright, save for when he bows into moments of more humorous positions. With a strong voice to carry numbers like “Oh Is There Not One Maiden Breast” Lehan finds the honesty of the character’s operatic tendencies. With much chemistry opposite Whittenberger, Lehan gives a praise-worthy performance.
As for Laura Whittenberger, it shall be difficult not to fall under her spell. An aural enchantress, each song she sings becomes lyrical divinity as she ascends the heights of the soprano range, particularly in “Poor Wandering One!” With surging emotions that diffuse flawlessly into her arias, Whittenberger displays a keen knowledge of performing opera with truth and emotional intent. Her hopeful duet with Lehan, “Stay, Frederic, Stay!” is jubilant and filled with glee. The aria immediately following, “Sorry Her Lot” is a true testament of her vocal and emotional versatility as she switches into a somber and sullen dirge that even showcases a bit of her lower range. Whittenberger’s voice is sublime; the finest female soprano sound to cross the Toby’s stage in many a year.
These pirates won’t stay dry-docked long! And this is not a show you’ll want to miss! Gaiety! Merriment! Pirates! What more could one want from summertime entertainment? The Pirates of Penzance is worthy of a trip to Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia. Grrrr!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
The Pirates of Penzance plays through August 31, 2014 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (301) 596-6161, or purchase them online.