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‘Pirates of Penzance’ at Cabrillo Playhouse

Director Casey Garritano aims to create a ‘big-time show’ in an intimate space.

By Eric Marchese

Even the casual Southern California theatergoer has a passing familiarity with the three most popular Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado.”

Theater companies far and wide lean towards staging these three, and they’re a huge draw with patrons, so they’re seen more often than any other G&S works.

Cabrillo Playhouse’s new staging of “The Pirates of Penzance” is therefore the latest in a long line of Orange County “Pirates” productions stretching back many decades.

For those unfamiliar with the famed duo, William S. Gilbert was the wordsmith who wrote the stories, dialogue and lyrics; composer Arthur Sullivan, who was later knighted, penned the music. Seeing the famous duo’s shows staged reinforces the reason their shows have rarely been adapted as films: To succeed as intended, they need the dynamism and spontaneity of a live production.

From Left: Carissa Huntting, Taylor Bannert, Tom Patrick, Emily Price, Thomas Mc Neil

Casey Garritano, the director of Cabrillo’s new staging, said that while this is the first time he has directed a Gilbert and Sullivan show, throughout his career he has had a thorough grounding in directing and choreographing musicals.

He’s a self-described “huge nerd of theater history, especially musical theater history,” a trait that serves him well in reinvigorating a play that was rollicking fun when it premiered in 1879 and has proven just as enjoyable each time it’s revived.

Garritano points out how the works of Gilbert and Sullivan differ from the musical theater that developed in the 1930s and ’40s into the now-classic art form as we know it today: “G&S is a joyous challenge and very different from directing a musical theater piece. The structure is much like a ballet where the story is very presentational and the plot points are really explored between the songs. The plot is dealt with between the songs in short, yet very clever, scenes.”

He said that in contemporary (post-1940s) musical theater, “the songs are an expression of the scene where the character gets to a point they can no longer speak to convey emotion; the character must sing to grow or move forward.”

By contrast, in operetta (such as “Pirates”), “the character is already there emotionally (so) they just break into song because it’s time to break into song, because the vast majority of the show is sung. The songs don’t really drive our characters’ actions or goals – they are just vehicles to express how our characters feel.”

From Left: Taylor Bannert, Emily Price, Tom Patrick

The director said he’s “fascinated with how the art form of musical comedy came to pass in the late 1800s – not just with G&S operettas, but with the early burlesque of the 1860s, shows like ‘The Black Crook’ from 1866 and French vaudeville of the 1880s. I love how all those genres of theater influenced, and still influence, musical theater.” (Gilbert and Sullivan’s works span nearly 20 years – 1871 through 1889.)

“The joy” in preparing a Gilbert and Sullivan show for the audience, Garritano said, “comes when staging the scenes in such a way that you don’t lose the audience's attention, but you also embrace the operatic style.” He praises “the beauty in the opera art form” but cautions that “if you’re too ‘old school’ and overbearing, you can lose a musical theater audience quickly.”

Garritano considers himself “very fortunate in finding a large range of performers for this show, which was what I was looking for. We have seasoned veterans and brand new performers both in the ensemble and principal characters.”

Heading the cast of 14 are Taylor Bannert as Frederic, Carissa Huntting as Mabel, Tom Patrick Proprofsky as The Pirate King, Thomas McNeil as Major-General Stanley, Emily Price as Ruth, David Poole as Samuel, and Roberto Viveros as the Sergeant of Police. Matt Metzger, Bridget Rago, Fin Reid, Liza Rios, Kristy Takacs, Joana Tsang-Segelson and Josie Yadrick fill out the show’s chorus of pirates, policemen and Mabel’s many sisters (the Major-General’s daughters).

Director-choreographer Garritano praises his cast, saying “the energy in the rehearsal room feels funny, fresh and new, which for a G&S show is very good. My veterans are commanding and my young actors are very eager, but I love it! I adore actors who challenge me and put me on the spot to deliver for them. I like providing them with what they need to shine and my joy comes from watching them discover new elements in their performance.”

From Left: Thomas McNeil, Carissa Huntting

Behind the scenes, cast member Tsang-Segelson is working alongside Garritano as assistant choreographer, and the show’s production and design staff is comprised of Ken Johnson as music director, Jon Gaw as scenic designer, Sarah Kemp (set painter), Jenny Wentworth (costume design), Cliff Senior (wigs), Nathaniel Dominguez (lighting design) and Lisa Garcia (stage manager). The show is executive produced by Michael Lopez.

Garritano said that working within the venue’s confines has posed the biggest challenge: “It’s a small stage for a big show with a big cast, but I love the challenge it presents. We have been working hard to embrace and expand the acting space emotionally, physically and mentally. Our executive producer, Michael Lopez, has been wonderful in helping us use every square inch of the space, and I’m loving the design teams’ concepts and creations.”

He added that “it makes the creative process so fulfilling when you have a limitation like this, yet you find the positives in the nuance and intimacy that a small space allows. I really hope we surprise the audience into believing they are in a big opera house watching a big-time show.” Yet, he notes that he also hopes the audience, because they’re in such close proximity to the actors, “feels deeply connected with the characters.”

Garritano said that with this cast, he got exactly what he wanted for the show. “I needed performers that just make you want to laugh along with them, and I think we really found a great group for that here at Cabrillo. At the end of the day, it’s just fun to make believe and dress up!”

From Left: Taylor Bannert, Carissa Huntting

Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 38 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.

‘The Pirates of Penzance’

Cabrillo Playhouse, 202 Avenida Cabrillo, San Clemente, CA 92672

April 21-May 14, 2023

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