Monday, July 15, 2013

Storyteller's Pirates of Penzance: Fun from a small company on a big stage.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The newly emerging Storyteller Theatre of Milwaukee continues to entertain with its latest production--a fun, slightly rough around the edges production of The Pirates of Penzance. It may be on a high school auditorium stage, but what with the relative sizes of things, this ends up being a very small start-up company performing on a relatively big stage. Any local production of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic is going to be compared to a recent Skylight Music Theatre production, which was absolutely stellar. It's probably an uninformed exaggeration, but I kind of like to imagine the producers at the Skylight weeping openly when they see what Storyteller was able to accomplish on the budget they had. Okay, so the production's not THAT overwhelmingly amazing, but this is a fun show that has a polished glossiness about it that can feel kind of surreal in places when you realize that the whole show was put together for the love of staging Gilbert and Sullivan. 



The brothers Zembrowski lead a large ensemble directed by Liz Shipe. Producer Matt Zembrowski stars as the heroic Frederic who lives his life duty bound to his honor. When he has served his time with a group of pirates, he is free to move on with his life. Zach Zembrowski plays the Pirate King who reluctantly lets him go to pursue his fate until things get complicated. Matt is largely playing the serious end earnest end of things, so the comic end of his performance is subtle, but his performance is a solid anchor for the rest of the action. Zach Zembrowski gets the more clever end of the comedy with sharp little bits of subtle humor thrown-in around the edges. 


The vocal power of the show is well-orchestrated. The sparkling heart of it all is brought to the stage by Lori Nappe in the role of Frederic's love interest Mabel. Nappe has a beautiful voice that gives the show a solid musical grounding. 



The comic end of the play is quite a bit more impressive than the music itself. Of particular note here are performances by Marcee Dohery-Elst as the token female pirate Ruth and Robert A. Zimmerman as Major General Stanley. The role of Ruth isn't terribly funny in and of itself. So much of the character rests somewhere between cliche and stereotype and it can be really difficult to make a character like that sparkle, but Doherty-Elst brings an appeal to the character that amps-up the fun. It's the kind of fun that's exceedingly easy to laugh to. Doherty-Elst has found an excellent approach here.



Robert A. Zimmerman is a local theatre veteran who has wanted to play the Major General for quite some time. He makes much of the opportunity in the single best comic performance in the production. There are some interesting layers to the comedy he's performing in the role and Zimmerman handles them with grace, but the big challenge for any actor in the role is the vocal challenge of I am the very model of a modern Major-General. There needs to be crisp precision and breakneck speed in order for that song to live up to its potential. Zimmerman does a surprisingly good job of delivering on the song's potential. The performance that I saw had Zimmerman showing some difficulty maintaining volume throughout the song. So it wasn't perfect, but the portions of the song that WERE clearly audible had shades of a lightning precision about them. And the important thing for me was the speed. That they are able  to get as fast with this song as they do is satisfying. Zimmerman's speed here made that song more satisfying to me here than it was in the recent Skylight production, which felt more than a little slow to me. 


Director Liz Shipe poured herself into this production and her presence is felt everywhere. In addition to directing, she did the costuming and various other elements of production. For someone whithout an extensive amount of directing experience, Shipe juggles a huge cast exceedingly well. She knows she's got a huge stage to fill in the theatre space that they're inhabiting. Whether it was coming up with ideas or simply letting the actors play in a way that would make it into the show, Shipe has definitely fostered an atmosphere where the stage is treated like an enjoyably large and moving canvas. Shipe and company have numerous jokes boing on onstage in and within the run of the play's action. Not all of the gags are executed terribly well, but even where some of the jokes fail, they don't take away from how much fun it is to look out across the stage and see how much Shipe has helped to soak onto the stage. Once again, a very entertaining production that is pleasantly far from perfection. StorytellerTheatre of Milwaukee continues to show a great deal of promise. 


The Storyteller Theatre of Milwaukee's production of The Pirates of Penzance runs through July 20th at St. Thomas More High School Auditorium. For ticket reservations, call 414-481-8370 ext. 312 or email storytellermilwaukee@gmail.com. 



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