The very model of a modern major musical

Preview: Ashland director Bill Rauch takes Portland Opera's 'Pirates of Penzance' for a Victorian spin with modern 'grace notes'

At the moment, Frederic doesn’t much look like a pirate. For one thing, he sports a handsome gray top hat; but, after all, this is his wedding. Rather it’s the striped sweatshirt, jeans and Converse that say “modern everyday guy,” not “high-seas scalawag.”

But the fellow’s sartorial anachronisms make sense. He’s not upon Atlantic waves but in a large, black-and-maroon-walled rehearsal room at Portland Opera. It’s an afternoon rehearsal in late April, so he’s partly Frederic, the idealistic 19th-century romantic lead of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, yet mostly Ryan MacPherson, a 21st-century performer preparing for Friday night’s opening at the Keller Auditorium. Meanwhile: as she at once embodies and examines Mabel, Frederic’s love interest, Talise Trevigne twirls about in an old-fashioned, cream-colored silk skirt — with the neon spatter of multi-colored running shoes peeking from underneath.

I get a kick out of you. A G&S pirate chorus line. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

I get a kick out of you: a G&S pirate chorus line. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Along with several other members of the cast and creative team, they’re working on the show’s celebratory closing scene, calibrating choreography, gesture and timing.

“I’d like to put this all together before we move on,” director Bill Rauch says, after an hour or so of worrying over diverse details in small groups. “Can we do it with music and at tempo?”

The result is a spirited, slightly silly dance of decorous bows and romantic kisses, flying floral bouquets and clacking swords. Rauch watches intently, then points out a moment where Major-General Stanley, played by Robert Orth, spins his daughter Mabel around, then sweeps out of the main action, toward stage right.

“I think, for safety, we should have Bob move downstage on that,” Rauch says.

“Upstage, downstage — all the same to me,” replies the nonchalant Orth, a baritone who has performed with Portland Opera over nearly thirty years.

Actually, those distinctions matter. This Pirates production is a revival of the version Rauch directed in 2011 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he’s the artistic director. The Oregonian (well, actually, it was me) called it “an effortlessly freewheeling romp … simultaneously giddy and precise in its crowd-pleasing mechanics.” Gilbert’s waterfall wordplay and Sullivan’s bubbling melodies seemed to be carried along by the madcap energy of the staging, as much as the reverse; much of the sheer joy of the thing was in watching the many characters, props and set pieces continually whizzing about with expertly timed abandon.

By opening tonight, presumably, this crew will have the complex choreography down. But while they’ll be clad fully in Deborah M. Dryden’s Victorian costumes, other intentional anachronisms, musical ones, will take the place of the rehearsal-room jeans and sneakers. In Ashland, Sullivan’s ebullient operetta melodies got an extra jolt with lots of brief pop references as diverse as Gershwin’s Summertime and the ’70s soul ballad Me and Mrs. Jones, quotes from Michael Jackson hits and The Wizard of Oz. Here, those little interpolations, which Rauch calls “grace notes,” may tend a bit more highbrow, adjusted for the context of an opera house and an opera audience.

“That question of the then-and-there versus the here-and-now always makes my artistic heart pitter-pat,” says Rauch, who has spoken before about the “blended time” that a theatrical presentation inevitably inhabits. What he means is that every production, whether or not it acknowledges so, is dealing with the time in which the narrative is set, the time in which it originally was written, the time in which the audience will be watching it, and, perhaps, any other era that the director wishes to draw upon for allusion or commentary.

“We’re always asking ourselves: How can we connect the dots to that original impulse behind whatever show it is we’re doing?” Rauch says. “Gilbert and Sullivan were writing in the 1870s, but they were referring to a variety of things going on around them and before them. So when we came up with the idea of the grace notes, it felt like it was in the spirit of that initial impulse.

“The costumes and the rest of the Victorian culture being prim and proper allows us to be respectful of the original, yet then dip our toes in the water of contemporary sensibility — and then right back out.”

 

   — Bill Rauch; or, The Slave of Duty —

The Pirates of Penzance tells the story of Frederic, a young man indentured to a band of pirates as their apprentice. Naturally, he encounters a maiden and falls in love. Just as naturally, there are complications.

Chief among those: Frederic is to be released from his bond upon his 21st birthday, and his birthday is imminent. But it turns out that he was born on February 29. So, even though he’s 21 years old, this birthday is only his fifth! Considering himself bound by the letter of the agreement, he won’t be able to leave the pirates — or to marry the daughter of the self-regarding, social-climbing Major-General Stanley — until about 1940.

From this plot point comes the show’s subtitle, The Slave of Duty.

Stage director Bill Rauch. Photo: Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2008

“Pirates” stage director Bill Rauch. Photo: Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2008

Despite the G&S reputation as entertaining but insubstantial, Rauch sees worthwhile themes below the frothy surface of Pirates. Gilbert’s libretto pointedly satirizes the hypocrisies (hypocri-seas?) of class divisions and social proprieties, matters prominent in late-19-century England but arguably still applicable in the here-and-now. However comedic, it’s also a love story, so there are emotional truths to be mined and mulled over. And then there are those appeals to duty.

“That has a resonance for me,” Rauch says. “Maybe it’s about all the directions I’m being pulled in right now. If I find myself with 10 minutes of free time, do I call my kids, do I do some work for OSF, do I answer emails…? I’ve been having to wrestle with that sense of, what is my moral obligation, my duty at any given moment.

“And the answer can be very important. Depending on your sense of what your duty is, you can make terrible decisions.”

Rauch, however, is so duty-bound these days because he’s been making good decisions. The 2014 OSF season has gotten off to a crackerjack start, but Rauch has been running the operation largely by remote. He spent several weeks earlier in the year in New York, directing Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston in the critically acclaimed Broadway premier of All the Way, a taut drama about the early days of the Lyndon Johnson administration and one of the fruits of OSF’s long-term commissioning project American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle.

But long before All the Way, which Rauch also directed in its 2012 world premiere at OSF, was cleared for its Broadway take-off, the Pirates raid up I-5 already was in the works.

Portland Opera’s Christopher Mattaliano saw the OSF production three years ago and approached Rauch about recreating it.

“I was immediately intrigued and challenged by the idea,” Rauch says.

It hasn’t been as simple as rolling a few buses and trucks up from Ashland. Much of the creative team is the same, including music director Daniel Gary Busby, choreographer Randy Duncan and scenic designer Michael Ganio. (Miriam Laube, associate director of the OSF production, hasn’t been in Portland because she has acting roles in two upcoming Ashland shows, yet Rauch credits her as the vital “communication glue” in coordinating the remount.) But because the opera is committed to unamplified singing — “We’ll have sound reinforcement for dialogue but not for songs,” Rauch says — and the show’s run dates conflict with the OSF season, no Ashland cast members will reprise their roles. And the opera version will be bigger, with more chorus members, more puppeteers and an orchestra bumped up from 14 pieces to 44.

For Rauch, there also has been an adjustment to the different approaches and working methods of the opera world — different rehearsal rules for soloists than for chorus members, for example.

“At the first rehearsal meeting, where everyone introduced themselves, they would say, ‘My name is so and so and I’m singing the role of…’ And I kept thinking, ‘No! No! You’re playing the role!’ But they’re really good actors, all of them. And very interested in acting. They’re taking the foundation of what we did in Ashland and digging into it.

“It’s been quite a year. Here I am in my 50s now and I get to learn the commercial theater culture this winter on ‘All the Way,’ and now I get to learn the opera culture.”

 

 —  Thank god the Keller has a roof —

 

The Pirates of Penzance was the first full-scale musical that OSF had ever presented on its open-air Elizabethan Stage, and it proved a challenge.  By theater standards, the show had a large cast and orchestra, and in addition to the elaborate choreography, balancing the sound in such a space was tricky. And then there was the rain.

The spring of 2011 was relentlessly wet in Ashland, and all the Pirates tech rehearsals — in which all the lights, sound, props, etc., are integrated with the dialogue and music — got soaked. As, no doubt, did a few of the summer performances.

“Thank god the Keller Auditorium has a roof,” Rauch says.

In Portland Opera’s headquarters on the east bank of the Willamette, the work has been more comfortable, if just as hectic.

“The chorus is being asked to move a lot more; what we ask of them is really extreme. We’ve had up to three rehearsal rooms going at once. It’s been kind of all hands on deck.”

Back in the large hall, in front of a pair of wide, wooden staircases linked by a scaffold, MacPherson and Trevigne work on a lift-and-dip sequence with Duncan, the choreographer, while nearby, assistant director Jacqueline Miller and assistant choreographer Robert Petrarca refine the steps for a bit blending dance, swordplay and a kiss.

“Are we going to have any moments where we can just sing?,” Trevigne says with a hint of cheerful exasperation. “I would appreciate that.”

During the next run-through, as MacPherson spins Trevigne around, another of the singers strays too close and takes a tumble, landing with a thud, her behind on the floor.

“Very exciting — until that moment,” Rauch deadpans.

“I think the timing is working great. It’s just the spatial issue we still need to work out: What’s on the center axis and what’s to the sides. Thank you for all that great work. We’re going to take 15 (minutes).”

Within seconds, though, Rauch is checking his phone, then huddling intently with Duncan, Busby and others.

Duty, after all, never takes a break.

*

Portland Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 9, at Keller Auditorium, and repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 11; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 15; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 17. Ticket information here.

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