Monday, May 25, 2009

Impressions of the Skylight's Pirates

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Due to obligations elsewhere, I was unable to attend the Skylight’s production of The Pirates of Penzance until only yesterday. The matinee crowd at the Broadway Theatre Center was an interesting mix. I sat near a retiree from out of town and a girl from the Milwaukee High School of the Arts. (There was a group from the school who had, if I heard correctly, studied under the Skylight’s Ray Jivoff who were there to perform in the cabaret upstairs after the matinee.) 

After a brief and charming curtain speech by Skylight Artistic Director Bill Theisen, the show started promptly. The curtain rose on a beautifully comic set by Peter Dean Beck  The rocky shore of the coast of Cornwall circa 1887 comes vividly to life as framed by a skewed border patterned after the border of an ancient vintage postcard. The coast is further referenced in a giant postcard lovingly painted in the background. Both border and postcard are placed at a jarring angle that gives the whole set a very dynamic nautical feel. Comic anachronism included a coin-op binocular unit, a modern park bench and a very modern-looking bright, yellow metal railing with a plaque hanging from it (if I’m not mistaken the plaque had directions for using the railing on it . . . the detailing on the plaque was pretty small.)  Graffiti on the rocks included the standard airline abbreviation for Milwaukee and what were probably a few in-joke references)

The performance unfolded more or less exactly as one might expect from a well-funded musical theatre group like the Skylight. As the show opens, the pirates, led by pirate king deftly played by Peter Clark, are celebrating the 18th birthday and subsequent graduation of pirate intern Frederic (boldly played by Robert M. Boldin.) As Gilbert and Sullivan’s conflicts began to present themselves, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the whole thing was just a few beats too slow for my liking. The spoken humor, reminiscent of the kind of Vaudeville that was contemporary to Gilbert and Sullivan, felt a bit slower than I like that sort of comedy, but I quickly adapted to the tempo and got into the rhythm of the show.

The brilliance of the Karin Kopischke’s costuming became apparent as the daughters of the Major General came out in big dresses with some blindingly vivid colors. The Major himself capably handled one of the most technically difficult songs in the show (I Am The Very Model . . ) The show swept along towards intermission quite briskly, ending with the striking image of Frederic reaching out for his love Mabel (a very poised Niffer Clarke.)
After intermission, the scene changes to the chapel ruins on the Major General’s estate. This time, the Peter Dean Beck set was considerably more reserved, with brilliantly forced perspective that made the stage look ten times as deep as it actually was. Just as the Cornwall set, the framing around the set of the ruins referenced a mural in the background. This time, as opposed to a post card, the set was made to resemble what appeared to be a certificate establishing the estate on a royal record of historic places. The brilliant bit about this was that the rendering of the estate itself had lights in it which lit-up as the Major awoke from his slumber to investigate noises in the ruins. The cleverest bit here was the use of a piece of scenery that isn’t visible until the end of the show. Of all the visual jokes Beck punctuated the set with, that had to be the most unexpected . . . very, very witty stuff . . .

The Skylight’s
Production of The Pirates of Penzance runs through June 14 at the Broadway Theatre Center.

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