GP Theatre starts 70th season with beloved Gilbert and Sullivan operetta

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 12, 2017

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — To open its 70th anniversary season, Grosse Pointe Theatre is dusting off a popular show from its past.

The Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “The Pirates of Penzance” will get the 2017-18 season off to a witty start when it opens at 2 p.m. Sept. 17. This season is also the first in more than five decades to find GPT not performing at The War Memorial. “Penzance” will be staged inside the University Liggett School auditorium.

“Penzance” follows the tale of an orphan named Frederick who is accidentally apprenticed to a rowdy but unsuccessful gang of pirates who invade a popular British vacation destination. It was first staged by GPT 30 years ago, in 1987.

In an email interview, director and co-choreographer Rachel Settlage, of Grosse Pointe Park, called “Penzance” “a hilarious farce of swashbuckling pirates, star-crossed lovers, bumbling (policemen), damsels in distress, and a very perfect modern Major General. It is one of the most famous and beloved comic operettas of all time and a treat for all ages.”

Settlage said that her introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan came when she was in law school and joined the Georgetown Gilbert and Sullivan Society, which she said billed itself as “The Only Theatre Group with Its Own Law School.”

“Despite my enthusiasm for doing theater, I was skeptical about doing a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, which I assumed would be dated and boring,” Settlage said. “Instead, over the next several years, I learned that Gilbert and Sullivan were true geniuses — wickedly smart, incredibly funny, and musically gifted.”

It’s been more than 20 years since GPT has performed one of their shows, she said.

“While I deeply love many Gilbert and Sullivan shows, ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ is, I believe, the most entertaining show the duo wrote,” Settlage said. “It is truly funny, while at the same time presenting some of the most memorable, iconic and beautiful music created by Gilbert and Sullivan.”

David Roberts, of Grosse Pointe Park, is playing Frederick, who he said via email is “a rather complicated character, and a decidedly British one at that.” Frederick, Roberts continued, “is both idealistic and charming,” but very committed to the idea of duty, “often going to absurd lengths” to maintain it — which can have “hilarious consequences.”

In an email interview, Roberts said it’s rare for community theater groups to tackle operetta “fully sung in a classical style with minimal dialogue to support the singing,” so he was grateful to have a chance to be in this show.

Likewise, Ron Bernas, of Grosse Pointe Woods, has been relishing the opportunity to play the Pirate King.

“The Pirate King is a fun character because he does whatever he wants and no one calls him on it because he’s the king,” Bernas said in an email interview. “But he’s also not terribly smart, which is also fun to play. He’s just out for a good time and he makes sure he gets it.”

Maggie Bickerstaff, of Grosse Pointe Shores, plays Mabel, another one of the leads. In an email interview, she said Mabel is “very sure of what she wants, and she’s also very aware of her elevated social status, so she believes she deserves the best and is not afraid to go after it.” She said this show is fun for actors and the audience alike.

“Gilbert and Sullivan are incredible comedians who really know how to compose for singers,” Bickerstaff said. “Mabel has been a dream role of mine for years. I’ve always felt that Gilbert and Sullivan are among the pinnacle of light opera composers, and I’ll always take advantage of an opportunity to do one of their shows.”

GPT newcomer Diane Schoff, of Grosse Pointe Woods, plays Ruth, a character she described in an email interview as someone who’s initially a “meek nursemaid” but who undergoes a dramatic change in the middle of the show.

The cast also includes Ron Otulakowski of Eastpointe as the Major General, Zack Coates of Detroit as the Sergeant, Erica Clarke of Warren as Kate, Sarah Seely of Hazel Park as Edith, Emilio Garcia of Grosse Pointe Park as Samuel and Campbelle Stencel as Isabelle.

The ensemble consists of Amber Fullmer of Ferndale, Andrew Hallam of Grosse Pointe Woods, Danielle Vogler of Grosse Pointe City, Eddie Tujaka of Grosse Pointe Farms, Elyse Tazzia of Grosse Pointe Farms, Emma Huber of Grosse Pointe Farms, Gordon Richardson of Grosse Pointe Park, Hazel Lyman of Grosse Pointe Woods, Katie Loporto of Grosse Pointe Woods, Kitty Clark of Harper Woods, Sam Smith of Grosse Pointe Park, Sophie Leszczynski of Grosse Pointe Woods, Steve Elmore of Clinton Township and Trevor Sherry of Clinton Township.

The talent extends behind the scenes as well, with local theater veterans like music and vocal director Ellen Skinner Bowen, of Grosse Pointe Park, and set designer and technical director Justin Hawley, of Grosse Pointe Park, among the many giving the show polish. Allison Roberts, of Grosse Pointe Park, is the co-choreographer with Settlage.

The show is a classic, but GPT is giving it a new spin.

“I think that we are remaining true to the piece’s authenticity in certain aspects, like costuming and dialects, but also bringing a fresh sense of comedy that translates very well into the 21st century,” Bickerstaff said.

Bernas said Settlage created a collaborative environment with her cast.

“Rachel Settlage has been wanting to direct this show for a long time,” he said. “She has been thinking about it for many years and brought lots of great ideas to it, then let us add on to that — within reason — so it’s become a real ensemble piece, with everyone bringing something to the table.”

Settlage said her cast “is amazing,” with performers bringing professional-level voices to the music, along with “rousing choreography and stunning swordplay.”

Like her castmates, Schoff said this show should appeal to all ages. The more mature humor “will fly over the heads of littler folk,” but children “will love, love, love the pirates and silly songs,” she said.

“The show is timeless in its silliness and has tons of great, well-known numbers,” Schoff said.

Because GPT is no longer performing in its longtime unofficial home, it’s trying to familiarize audiences with the new spaces where it will be this season; several schools in the Pointes will be hosting productions.

“(This) show will be performed in the University Liggett auditorium and patrons can use the main school entrance for access to the auditorium,” Settlage said. “Complimentary valet parking is available for all patrons. Additional parking is available in the school lots across Cook Road and at Monteith Elementary School. We may be in a new space — and we are so grateful to Liggett for hosting us — but rest assured that the production quality that Grosse Pointe audiences have come to expect from us will be there with us, in spades.”

GPT’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance” runs through Oct. 1. Tickets cost $25. University Liggett School is located at 1045 Cook Road in Grosse Pointe Woods. For tickets or more information, call the GPT box office at (313) 881-4004 or visit www.gpt.org.