Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Operatic Sense of Duty

G'ma and I saw the Arizona Opera's performance of The Pirates of Penzance on Sunday.  We're still humming the tunes and making ourselves laugh as I remember and remind her of that faithless woman, Ruth, of the lithe and supple policemen seeming to fly above the stage, of the wardrobe malfunction which revealed the faux-buns which created the sisters' bustles.  It was a marvelous, wonderful, totally enjoyable performance, even if the tickets did set us back nearly $250.  On the other hand, we were 6 rows from the stage, right in the middle.  We could make eye contact with the performers.  Some of them had very nice eyes.

Getting places with G'ma and her assistive devices always makes me a little nervous.  Will there be stairs?  Will the handicapped spots still be available?  Will she be too nervous if I have to drop her off?  The parking lot was full an hour before the curtain went up, and I began to sweat.  But the attendant directed us to a less expensive and ultimately more convenient lot underneath the Arizona Inn. With both of us in the car, our parking karma was out in full force - I left The Schnozz in the first space to the right of the entrance ramp.  I love learning new things about downtown; I now have a sneaky place to leave my car whenever I'm going to the Convention Center area.  

We walked across the street and into the doorway which was, surprisingly and pleasantly, situated at the end of our row of seats.  The usherette handed us pretty programs and we slid down to our places.  The Tucson Music Hall is an absolutely lovely venue.  The chairs are comfy and there's plenty of leg room and enough of a pitch between rows that your view is rarely blocked.  It's true that the tallest person in the theater was seated in front of G'ma, but she insisted that she was fine and I believed her.  Nothing spoiled our afternoon. 

Joel Revzen, conductor extraordinaire, strode to his podium with a firm step and a big smile and that's how he conducted.  He swirled the horns and quieted the drums and flourished and bombasted with the best of them.  He was still smiling when he joined the cast on stage at the end of the performance.... and so were we.

This was a quirky production.  Curt Olds's Pirate King and his unbuttoned blouse gave a sexy overtone to his wry persona.  Frederic (Brian Anderson) was campy and dull and a foil as, I think, all the male ingenue leads in Gilbert and Sullivan tend to be.  He was eagerly and easily led by the sultry-teetering-on-the-edge-of-slutty Mabel.  Played brilliantly by Sarah Jane McMahon, she announced her presence with authority when she joined her sisters on stage and she kept herself in view even as she was climbing the rocky walls while the rest of the cast sang center stage.  It wasn't upstaging.... or if it was, I didn't mind it.  Mostly, I just wanted to see what she'd come up with next.  I've never seen a Victorian maiden turn cartwheels before.  And these were good cartwheels.  We enjoyed it and she knew it and it was all good.  Everybody was smiling. 

Except, perhaps, for Ruth.  Korby Myrick captured what I've always felt about Ruth : an inner toughness and superiority.  She knew her options were limited.  A 47 year old baby nurse with references from a band of pirates would have a hard time making her way in England without a husband.  There was real desperation as she sang Master, Master, do not leave me, and her voice was powerful enough to rise above Frederic and the orchestra and pierce my soul. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of the production was the attention we paid to the lesser characters.  Each and every one of the sisters had a distinct personality.  The taupe one held her hanky up when all the rest were down.  One cried and sighed more than anyone else.  One was shyer and another an extremely forceful dancer.  Their outfits were all different (I've seen productions where the dresses varied only in color) and stunning, but it's their personalities I remember most.  The same can be said for the pirates.  Though only Kevin Wetzel's Samuel is named in the program, I can bring to mind the plaid-panted pirate and the ginger-bearded pirate and the looked-like-he-was-going-to-church pirate and the waist-coated gentleman (for gentlemen they are, if you recall), too.  

The policemen were all of a piece - black mustachioed and uniformly uniformed.  The three dancing policemen brought some life to those scenes, but the stand-out cop was Police Sergeant Craig Phillips, who had a little Groucho Marx thing going on up there on the stage, with his goo-goo-googly eyes and giggle-inducing mannered gait.  I've heard the role sung more beautifully, but I've never known the Sergeant before seeing it on Sunday.  Perhaps all those policemen were boring by design, there to provide a backdrop for their Sergeant.  The troops came into their own on their entrances and exits, though.  Their marching feet were perceived as drum beats.  There was nothing overt about it; the sound was just there as they moved across the stage.  It was eerie and creepy and wonderfully in tune with the set - Chris Clapp's cobweb encrusted recreation of Major-General Stanley's ruined ancestral home. 

There were lots of wonderfully funny things to see, like flat sheep which baa'ed their way across the stage, and there were many beautiful things to see, too.  The costumes and the seashore and the lighting (in shades of orange and violet) of the tableaux-like choral pieces evoked more than one ahhh from those around us.  Mabel's parasol has a persona all its own... and a fairly sexy persona at that.  The curtain was red and then there was rigging, silhouetted in black, and a skull and cross bones that was less Captain Hook and more Yorick appearing on that red background.  It was subtle; one second it was there, the next it was not.  It was fun to smile before the curtain rose. 

If you know nothing else about this operetta, you know the patter of the Modern Major General.  Steven Condy owns the role, and nobody else should even try.  I understood every single word he said, without looking at the super-titles.  He enunciated cleverly, he postured outrageously, he whined gratuitously, and I loved every single bit of it.  His role is graced with some of Gilbert's best words - that divine emollient, poetry is right up there with my favorite lines of all time - and he does them justice while enjoying himself immensely.  

And this is a nice segue to my favorite part of the entire experience - it was totally un-mic'ed.  That's right, these were performers who were prepared to fill an auditorium of 2,289 souls with the sound of their voices and nothing else.  No electronic enhancements were available to create noise where there should be music.  If I wanted to hear them I had to be there; I always feel as if I could be listening to a record instead of sitting in my seat when I hear a mic'ed performance.  This was musical theater as it should be - the performers, the sets and a few thousand ears and eyes and hearts. 

I wish you all could have been with us, though I brought you there in my heart.  I scribbled notes on index cards (writing in the dark is hard) so I wouldn't forget a thing.  Like most good things, this is even better now that it's shared.

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