R.Crumb meets Punch in Anchorage Opera's 'Penzance'

Mike Dunham
Director Bill Fabris and set designer Cleo Pettitt have set the stage for "The Pirates of Penzance" which opens Friday in the Discovery Theatre at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
Erik Hill
A pirate ship prepares to ride the waves in a set designed by Cleo Pettitt.
Erik Hill
Colorful, comical art frames the stage for the Anchorage Opera production of "The Pirates of Penzance" in the Discovery Theatre Tuesday March 26, 2013 at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts
Erik Hill
Charlene Schmidtkunz helps wire footlights for the Anchorage Opera production of “The Pirates of Penzance” in the Discovery Theatre on Tuesday at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
Erik Hill
Set designer Cleo Pettitt envisioned a whimsical show curtain, which was then made by scenic artist Carrie Yanagawa for Anchorage Opera.
Erik Hill

Director Bill Fabris had a gut-knotting moment late last year when he learned that the Anchorage Opera production of "My Fair Lady," which he was in the process of preparing, had been canceled. The licensing agency had pulled permission for local performances of the musical in anticipation of a big national touring production. What would take its place was yet to be decided.

On the other side of the world, London set designer Cleo Pettitt was also caught off guard. "We had 'My Fair Lady' half designed already," she said.

"We start working on shows six months before we get here," said Fabris.

The production team confronted several unchangeable items. The Discovery Theatre was already booked for a show. Many of the performers were already signed up. Anchorage Opera was under contract with a specific costume company.

Eventually the company decided to move up a production of "The Pirates of Penzance" planned for next season. The choice settled a lot of unknowns. Unlike the multi-scene "My Fair Lady," "Pirates" needs only two sets. The contracted "My Fair Lady" singers could also do the "Pirates" roles. The costume company had plenty of pirate costumes. Above all, Fabris said, "It doesn't have any copyright issues."

There remained the matter of how to stage the piece, but Fabris, long associated with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, had no shortage of ideas. He'd already directed a dozen productions of the operetta, not including remounts or revisions. In one case he had "Pirates" opening at two different locations simultaneously, Charlotte, N.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

"I think this is actually going to be easier," he told Pettitt as she headed back to the drawing board.


R. Crumb meets Punch

Pettitt's final product features a lively and comic proscenium decorated with images of old seaside postcards and tattoos, looking something like R. Crumb cartoons or the illustrations from the classic humor magazine Punch. The tooniness matches the mood of Gilbert and Sullivan's farce in which modern day buccaneers confront bumbling bobbies and -- in the best English tradition -- class, privilege and patriotism overcome all obstacles.

"I do loads of pantomimes in England," said Pettitt, referring to the old fashioned music hall style entertainments that traditionally feature such gags as men in drag and are the basis of Monty Python routines. The sets are as convention-bound as the acts. "So I do a lot of illustrations," she said -- illustrations that match the mood of a script that she described as "perfectly silly."

In addition to humorous depictions of Victorian beach-goers and topless mermaids ("We're going to add some strategic starfish," Pettitt said) the designs also hint at cogs, springs and other parts of mechanical toys known as "automata" once found at penny arcades.

"It's all part of those Victorian times when everything was being invented," she said.

The tattoo images reflect the crude style of real sailors' tattoos from the era. One odd figure, she said, "looks like Road Runner meets Phoenix."

Her design also features a full-stage drop, or curtain, that had to be painted outside Anchorage Opera's workshop by scenic artist Carrie Yanagawa and a team of artists.

"We did it at Wendy Williamson Auditorium," Yanagawa said. "It was the perfect place, with a big enough floor to do it."

Where "My Fair Lady" would have required some pre-determined scenic design, Pettitt said "Pirates" gave her a lot more liberty. "You can do your own things with this," she said. "You can do anything you want."

So she has a two-dimensional pirate ship shuttle across waves in the background, looking something like the ducks in a carnival shooting gallery.

"If we had that Broadway budget, the waves would be moving too," said Fabris.

Fabris -- whose previous Anchorage shows have included an antic "HMS Pinafore," also for Anchorage Opera -- matched his stage action to the tone in the design, with "choreography right out of vaudeville," from soft-shoes to can-cans.

For most of the cast, "It's more dancing than they've ever done in their lives," he said and added that the non-dance action involves a lot of "Charlie Chaplin slapsick."


Copyright 'pirates'

There's some irony in the fact that "Pirates" is pinch-hitting for "My Fair Lady" because it no longer has copyright protection. The twisted order of the first productions came about as the authors tried to overcome the unauthorized versions of "Pinafore," their previous hit.

The sheet music for "Pinafore" songs reached America long before the approved production opened in New York. In the meantime, various stagings took place all over the country and there was little William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan could do about it except count their losses.

Some suspect that, in creating the Pirate King character -- sort of the theatrical ancestor of Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow -- Gilbert was making a sour reference to the theatrical "pirates" who had looted his rightful booty.

To avoid a repeat, the music was not released until after opening night, which took place not in England, but in New York on Dec. 31, 1879.

Audiences loved the hilarious send-up of British protocol and the music, which Sullivan himself called "tunier" than that in "Pinafore."

But New York's Fifth Avenue Theatre was the only place you could see it and the only available sheet music were the editions for which Gilbert and Sullivan held the royalties. (Before recordings, reading sheet music was the way most people got their dose of popular hits.)

The New York premiere nailed down American rights, but to secure the rights in Britain, a single matinee presentation was slapped together in a small, remote Devon theater the day before the official opening on the other side of the Atlantic.

It's a tale nearly as convoluted as one of the central conceits of the show's plot: Good-hearted Frederick, apprenticed to the pirates until his 21st birthday, cannot honorably detach from his dishonorable duties until he's lived 84 years because, technically, he was born on Leap Day.

"Pirates" relies on music to a greater extent than "Pinafore," with longer set pieces and less spoken dialogue.

And Sullivan was right about it being "tunier;" his two best-known melodies are found here, "Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here," which has different lyrics in the show, and the perpetually parodied "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General."

The goal of the show remains much the same as it was in 1879, Fabris submits, to have fun and laugh past life's troubles for a while. "We've had so much snow that it's time to go to the beach," he quipped, looking at Pettitt's panorama of sand and shells.

Pettitt herself looked over the scene and smiled. "This set makes people happy," she said.


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

Originally from Stratford-on-Avon, Cleo Pettitt started her career as a painter for the Royal Shakespear Company. She then studied design and "went on to musicals. I've been doing musicals ever since."

"Pirates of Penzance" is her sixth visit to Anchorage. Among other work, she designed shows for Alaska Theatre of Youth in the 1990s.

This month she's had an exhibit of paintings at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art. The paintings combine both her sense of humor and her familiarity with Anchorage, showing local landmarks like Portage Glacier and Club Paris with vintage vehicles from the 1950s and '60s.

The show closes today, but Pettitt is hoping to have some of the work placed at local art stores. It hasn't been easy to figure out how to do that, she said. Getting hired for a musical, pantomime or puppet show is a very different matter from working with a gallery and she's not entirely familiar with the steps.

"I'm not from the art world," she said. "I'm from the theater world."

Guest artists in this production include Michael Scarcelle as the Pirate King, Vanessa Ballam as Mabel and Benjamin Robinson as Frederick. Locally based singers in key roles include Nancy Caudill as Ruth, Bill Gerry as Major-General Stanley, Justin Birchell as Samuel, Christine Keene as Edith and Kyle Gantz as the Police Sergeant. Amber Gauthier is Kate and Allison Polowy is Isabel. Kelly Kuo conducts.