Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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New Sounds

September 01, 2011

Eddie Lopez and Robin Goodrin Nordli. Photo: Jenny Graham

The hottest ticket in Ashland at this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival by my unofficial observation has to be the revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, which is playing on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage through October 8. It's a musical comedy from a team with over a century of very devoted fans. But as any opera fan can tell you, while this can help ensure a show's status as a hit, such devotion can also lead to alienation when people start making alterations to beloved works they see in particular ways. OSF artistic director Bill Rauch helmed this revival and true to his form and desire to connect with contemporary audiences, he has worked with his gigantic cast and crew to tweak Pirates of Penzance into something a bit less quaint and much more familiar. And while audiences including the one I saw the show with last week have been highly enthusiastic, there have been some dissenters, including the one or two loud booers I heard during the curtain calls.

Which seems unfair to me given how enjoyable this show is overall. Probably the most notable and perhaps most controversial change is the substitution of some of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music with more contemporary beats. Most of the musical numbers contain at least one chorus or refrain where the performers slip into a modern musical idiom be it gospel revival, Las Vegas showtune, or hip hop bravado. These segues never fail to draw laughter and applause, but they are admittedly not going to be to everyone’s taste. I felt they were generally appropriate, however, considering the context and spirit of the work. The Pirates of Penzance is over a century old and was what even its authors would have considered light fare to begin with. What Gilbert and Sullivan were working for was something that entertained the public ,and that was what people wanted to see. They had no illusions about that, so taking liberties with a contemporary revival of their work to make it crowd pleasing seems well within the spirit of the endeavor.

Of course, the OSF production values are as high as ever for Pirates, and what really makes the show in the end are the very committed performances from the excellent ensemble cast. This is a very physical show with lots of dancing and stunts. Watching the ensemble regulars show off their singing and dancing skills is a thrill. Michael Elich makes for a sexy and swarthy Pirate King while Robin Goodrin Nordli is a very funny Ruth. David Kelly pulls off the Major-General’s tongue twister number with ease and no cut in speed. There are a couple ringers in the cast. Eddie Lopez plays Frederic whose over-devotion to duty drives the shows antics. He's got a lovely voice and is young and handsome to boot. Soprano Khori Daastor is the real McCoy, an operatic performer whose graced stages as Lucia di Lammermoor among others. Here she is Mable, Frederic’s paramour, and her strength and piercing clarity at the top of her range made her a joy to listen to. The small orchestra which was perched on the second floor of the Elizabethan stage was conducted by Daniel Gary Busby from the pit. Is it The Pirates of Penzance Victorian audiences saw? No. But they didn't have indoor air-conditioning either. Time moves on and so can Gilbert and Sullivan.

Nell Geisslinger, Michael Winters, and John Tufts. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

The other outdoor production I saw at this year's festival was Lisa Peterson's staging of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II. On the heals of 2010's production of part I, Peterson uses many of the same cast members to continue with the events most maniacally set up in the prior installment. John Tufts is a handsome Prince Hal. But it was Michael Walters relaxed, beautifully paced performance of Falstaff that made the evening. The knight may be a loquacious story teller and a buffoon, but he doesn't always need to be a high-energy blowhard as well. Winter takes the time to revel in Falstaff's personal foibles for a performance that was detailed and tinted with just a bit of heartache, making the climactic scene all the more powerful. Peterson relies largely on a modern dress staging that is clean looking and she keeps the pacing up throughout. It's a quality treatment of one of the better history plays and combined with a number of other excellent shows now on stage in Ashland, it provides a good excuse to get up to Oregon before September comes to a close.


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