Nonprofit theater organization takes center stage with final act for the year

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published June 12, 2018

 Character Frederick is played by Brad Lieto, left, while love interest Mabel is played by Christina Swanson.

Character Frederick is played by Brad Lieto, left, while love interest Mabel is played by Christina Swanson.

Photo by Ruth Ilmer

 General Stanley is played by Steven Pfannes, left, while the pirate king is played by Alex Morrison.

General Stanley is played by Steven Pfannes, left, while the pirate king is played by Alex Morrison.

Photo by Ruth Ilmer

FARMINGTON HILLS  — A pirate’s life is definitely the life for Beverly Hills resident Bradley Lieto, who plays an indentured servant in an upcoming production of “The Pirates of Penzance, or, The Slave of Duty.” 

The Thistle Rose Academy of Arts wants to shiver yer timbers with its performances at North Congregational Church, 36520 W. 12 Mile Road. The play will be staged at 8 p.m. June 21-23, plus a 3 p.m. matinee performance June 23.

Thistle Rose has been around for about five years and grew out of Trinity in the Woods Episcopal Church. The group — a separate entity from the church — was incorporated as a nonprofit organization last January to encourage and develop opportunities to perform, practice, perfect and promote the performing and applied arts to its members, according to www.this tleroseacademy.org. 

Play director Ruth Ilmar, of Southfield, a longtime Thistle Rose member, said the group encourages residents to try new things in the performance realm.

The Thistle Rose vision came from founder and President Rachael L. Rose, also a Trinity in the Woods member.

Rose, a professional singer, musical director and staff accompanist at Wayne State University and director of the music ministry at Trinity in the Woods, has been an active performer/director in metro Detroit for more than 20 years, a press release states.

“The whole thing is kind of her vision,” Ilmar said of Rose, adding that the community-based organization has beginners and professionals, teenagers and seniors. “We also have this great mentoring program going on.” 

Trinity in the Woods is tucked at the end of a tree-lined neighborhood street. Inside, under vaulted ceilings, Lieto and Ilmar spoke during a June 5 rehearsal, discussing the English play’s whimsical antics and serious undertones. 

Lieto plays Frederick, and he said Frederick’s naivete and loyalty to pirates keep things interesting. 

“He has been bound to the pirates by mistake,” Lieto said. “He’s kind of stupidly earnest and kind of goes with what he thinks is right — has a consciousness to do right by everybody … but it’s no-nonsense.”

Ilmer said Frederick has grown up on a pirate ship and is freed from his indentured servitude on his 21st birthday.

“He wants to leave the pirate lifestyle,” she said. Frederick goes off in search of love and fortune, and he meets a girl whose father does not take kindly to him. This ends in a clash between the band of pirates, the girl’s father and the police. 

Even more chaos ensues when it is discovered that Frederick was born on a leap year, so the length of his indentured servitude, and his blind loyalty, come into question.

“He’s really bound by a sense of duty,” Ilmer said. The production premiered in New York in 1879, and the show is set in the same year.

The Thistle Rose Academy of Arts comprises volunteer performers called the Thistle Rose Players. Other groups function under the umbrella of the Thistle Rose Academy of Arts, such as the Thistle Rose Young Artists and the Thistle Rose Community Choir. Performing arts, technical arts, culinary arts and applied arts are all points of focus in the organization.

Before this production, the theater company had staged about four shows in the 2017-18 season; this show is the last for the year. 

They will pick back up with a youth play in October for the start of the 2018-19 season. The group typically does four to five shows per year, including some cabaret nights, akin to an open mic night. 

The upcoming production has about 50 participants, and during a recent rehearsal many cast members came together at the church to sing, dance and perfect their lines. Hanging up in a back room were Victorian-era nightgowns. Near them sat a volunteer knitting something pink. Beyond her, a rehearsal scene unfolded with pirates and baton-wielding police officers artistically duking it out.

Lieto said that the production is accompanied by an orchestra. Alan Oliphant, production conductor, said in an email that he connected with Thistle Rose three years ago.  

“I was asked to play trumpet for a production of movie songs that … Rose was producing. As we talked and got to know each other, she discovered that although I could play trumpet, my first passion is conducting,” he said. 

A year later, they worked together on a project that involved putting together a choir and a brass ensemble, he said. 

Oliphant said the music for “The Pirates of Penzance” is fun to listen to, conduct and sing. 

“It is upbeat, funny, spirited and has an amazing, lilting dance quality to it,” he said. “I am really looking forward to working with both the actors and the orchestra to create a sound and a feeling that will inspire the audience and leave them with a sense of wonder and help to immerse themselves into the pirate culture for a couple of hours.”

Ilmer said that the production’s 100th anniversary was celebrated in 1979, a movie was adapted in 1981, and the stage production won a number of Tony Awards.

“(It’s) a perennial favorite of colleges and (for) community (productions),” Ilmer said.

While the mobile theater company rehearses at a number of places and doesn’t have a home address, Lieto said that they are grounded. Having the church as a backdrop to many of its activities is “humbling.”

“While we rehearse here, there is a sense of community around us … (a) very welcoming presence,” he said, adding that it is a “let’s be all we can be together” attitude.

Lieto said the production will be “a pile of good old-fashioned fun.”

“You don’t get more fun than stupid English humor,” he said.

Ilmer said it’s a family-friendly show.

For more information, go to www.thistleroseacademy.org.