Now embarked upon their 50th annual summer season, Madison Savoyards have again demonstrated their capacity for enduring self-renewal and for artistic vitality.
This year's production, which opened Friday in UW Music Hall, offers the sure-fire Gilbert-and-Sullivan hit, The Pirates of Penzance: that wonderfully ditsy story of a hapless hero trying desperately to redeem himself from a piratical apprenticeship, but foiled by the quirk of a birth in a leap year that negates his maturity and freedom. Already a seasoned professional, tenor J. Adam Shelton gives ringing voice to the role of Frederic, the "slave of duty." He is admirably matched in the appropriately operatic and deft acting of soprano Catherine Schweitzer as his beloved Mabel.
Baritone William Rosholt is a dashing Pirate King, and the vibrant veteran Kathleen Butitta is spirited as Ruth, the Pirates' housemaid (and Frederic's former nursemaid). Matt Marsland seems to strain too much vocally to sound like an old man, but he makes an amusing Major General, guardian of all the girls in sight. A vocal standout is deep-bass Anthony Ashley, as the sergeant leading the timorous policemen. The smaller roles are carried out with fine flair.
The chorus is a little thin on men, especially when they have to divide into pirates and policemen in Act II. But the group as a whole is quite solid. The magnificent "Hail, Poetry" in the Act I finale, appropriately sung straight out, is guaranteed to wow the audience. The orchestra, a culling of UW music school students, was admirably guided by Blake Walker, who brought them beyond shaky pick-up sound to quite comfortable ensemble on the very first night.
One of the outstanding features of this year's production is the generally very clear and carefully produced diction, a great improvement over difficulties in last year's Utopia, Ltd. production.
The staging is directed by William Farlow, who is here at his best as a master of detail and movement. The interaction of the characters, both soloists and groups, is carefully worked out, with witty dance elements added to ensembles and with very fine juxtapositions of opposing groups - in Act II, the Stanley daughters terrifying the policemen, and the latter faint-heartedly stalking the swaggering pirates. A calculated audience-charmer is the introduction into ensemble blocking of a quartet of younger daughters, who dance in and out, in formation, at appropriate moments.
Liz Rathke's stage designs are very simple but effective, backed by Steven Peterson's carefully modulated lighting. Sydney Krieger's costumes are richly varied and aptly appointed.
In all, one of the most coherent and well-balanced of Savoyards' productions in recent years - that's saying something, too! - and a certain treat for all comers.