This summer CUTC will be presenting Gilbert & Sullivan’s immortal musical comedy The Pirates of the Penzance at Parkland College’s Harold and Jean Miner Theatre. The show will feature 30 young actors (high school and middle school age) under the direction of Dawn Harris. I spoke with Ms. Harris about the show and why you should be excited for it.
Smile Politely: How would you describe The Pirates of the Penzance to someone who had never heard of it before? How would you convince someone that it was a play they should see?
Dawn Harris: The Pirates of Penzance is the most popular comic opera written by the English Victorian duo, Gilbert and Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 comic operas between 1871 and 1896 and still enjoy popularity in our modern English speaking world. Gilbert, the playwright, created a topsy-turvy world by combining realism and absurdity within the plot and characters of his operas. In this story we find a group of Pirates who turn out to be “noblemen who have gone wrong” and a Major General who knows many things but nothing about the military. On the other hand, the composer, Sullivan, wrote glorious melodies that are memorable and well loved. Essentially, the two were spoofing grand opera.
The themes within the plot are timeless. Those include a strong sense of duty or obligation, social ranks, forgiveness, and a love of country — all of which are relevant to today’s audiences.
I would encourage someone to attend this production if they have never seen an opera or operetta before because this is a true comic classic and has withstood the test of time. It is the direct predecessor to our modern musicals [in that] it contains: a fun plot; interesting and colorful characters; large, glorious chorus numbers; beautiful melodies; as well as fast patter numbers (the most famous of all time: “I am the very model of a modern Major General”); and PIRATES! Who doesn’t love a show with Pirates? And we even have a real ship on stage!
SP: What is it like working with children for this play? Would you want to work with people of that age on future presentations with CUTC?
Harris: I have had a great time working with the students on this show! They have taken my direction very well and have caught on to the style and nuances associated with Gilbert and Sullivan. I haven’t had any issues with them listening…however juggling their busy schedules and my rehearsals have been a bit tricky along the way. However, we are going to have a great show!
SP: What made you choose Pirates and Guys and Dolls as the summer plays this year? Did you debate over other titles?
Harris: CUTC has a show selection committee, and I am a member of this group. I did have Pirates of Penzance and Grease as my top youth shows; and Guys and Dolls, South Pacific and Oklahoma were tops for the adult show. Basically, we wanted shows that would be challenging to the casts and have a wide audience appeal.
SP: How has production as a whole gone? Aside from lots of children in the cast, I wonder how smoothly the technical and behind-the-scenes aspects have gone.
Harris: Production has gone quite well so far. My producers have lined up a fantastic staff and crew for me to work with. They are all experienced in their individual crafts, and I have every confidence in their abilities.
SP: Does presenting the show at Parkland present any difficulties? And what audience demographic would you expect to turn out for this production?
Dawn Harris: This is my first time directing in the theatre at Parkland College. I have performed on that stage before many years ago. I look forward to getting to know the space and hopefully, direct there again in the near future.
I expect the audience to be of all ages, considering the entire cast is middle and high school performers. Their families and friends will want to come and support them.
SP: Any additional information or statements about this play you would like to add?
Harris: Although my concept for the show is very traditional, I have added a few fun modern references to this production. I think it will be interesting to see how young performs pull off this operetta. I have directed this show at least five times for adult companies and have sung roles and been in the chorus too many times to even count, but I have never seen or directed Pirates with an “under 18” aged cast. The music is challenging, and the dialogue is quite stylized in its clever and almost Shakespearean manner, but these kids are doing an outstanding job! When you add the orchestra, the fabulous set and costumes… Well, you have a fast paced, visually stunning early piece of musical theatre history coming to life on stage.
The Pirates of Penzance will be presented at the Harold & Jean Miner Theatre at Parkland College June 11-14 and June 18-21 at 7:30 p.m., with 2:30 p.m. matinee performances on Sunday. More Info on CUTC can be found here.
Photos by Scott Wells.