Livermore's Bankhead to present 'Pirates of Penzance'
By Lou Fancher
Pirates never go out of style.
Leaning into that truth, Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre follows hundreds if not thousands of predecessors down a happy trail Jan. 16-31 to present "The Pirates of Penzance" at the Bankhead Theater.
The much-admired comic, two-act opera penned by Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert in 1879 has aged gracefully while being relished in a string of 20th century revivals including a London production, regional and off-Broadway shows, and Joseph Papp's 1980 award-winning adaptation in Central Park that eventually moved to Broadway and starred Kevin Kline, Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt. A 1983 film of Papp's updated version swapped in Angela Lansbury for Estelle Parsons and formed the basis for a proliferation of imitations and adaptations in film and television, along with frequent references to the show in popular culture.
One may think we'd be done with all things pirate. But no, the story of Frederic, who mistakenly believes on his 21st birthday that he's finally free of his duty to a band of orphan-loving pirates and can instead pursue his heart's desire -- Mabel, the melodious daughter of Major General Stanley -- continues to engage audiences worldwide.
Even a motley troupe of nine men in a strip mall rehearsal room in Pleasanton, dressed in rehearsal garb -- Levi's, San Francisco Giants T-shirts, running shoes -- can lift their elbows to whip out their swords, hoist their baritones into tenor range and form a compelling sight.
"Some of these guys showed up dressed as pirates the first day," says director Misty Megia. "I'm just the bumper for them, bringing the humor out, which can get lost in the music. I've been treating it like a Shakespeare show, physicalizing a lot of the story."
Behind her, slain by a single sweep of Pirate King Peter Budinger's sword, the blue-jeaned men crash to the floor en masse.
"We can have craziness right here, but as you fall, hold the swords up so they're the last thing to come down. You don't want to hit someone or fall on your sword," says choreographer Christina Lazo, whose work overlaps organically with Megia's in the production.
Sharing the "seams" between the show's many songs, the choreography in transitions that the two veteran theater professionals craft is like a baton handoff between runners in a relay race. In many ways, theater is all about transitions, and effective comedy in particular depends on quick cuts and surprising opposites.
"There's a moment where our Pirate King finds out the major general has lied to protect himself and isn't an orphan. He screams in a steaming, understated way, walks grindingly to a wall and bangs his head full force. He comes back and speaks perfectly calmly. One moment he's zany, then bravado, then controlled," Megia says.
Nikita Burshsteyn, 21, brings a gentle tone to his Frederic. It's the first time the actor has played the role, but with two weeks before opening night, he's steeped in the character.
"I'm going for the exaggerated feel of the show but keeping the naive, calm Frederic. He's found his girl, his calling, but he's blinded by that."
Casting himself as sympathetic and someone an audience can adore doesn't mean Burshsteyn has had an easy time in rehearsal.
"Finding the operatic side isn't often done in musical theater. It takes more stamina than pop music."
Working with a voice coach, he's honed the timing of his breathing, searched for where to press his vocal range and where to back off, removed any "pops" in notes that should instead waft gently or build in volume gradually to increase the drama.
"No matter how hard things get in rehearsals, I find it fascinating that by opening night, everything works out," he says.
And with those words, he's touched on the magic of live theater. The one thing you cannot put into words -- though it's worth a try -- is the energy that vibrates not just onstage but between the audience and a cast of actors, singers or dancers.
"A show can only grow so much in rehearsal spaces," says Megia. "Once you hear the audience reacting, it changes the show entirely. Navigating those waters requires give and take. I love what it brings to a show."
During the final two weeks, the 32-member cast is moving to the stage, and pirates are dispensing with pretend stair-climbing and imagined breakaway railings to practice real plummeting (onto hidden mattresses) and moving in clusters under blinding lights. They're perfecting not "roundhousing" their swords from their scabbards and adapting to the variances in live music that will accompany them.
But one thing comes without practice or the patient coaching of their directors. Pirates on land, sea or stage, no matter how old or what gender, always arrive with swagger -- and in style.