Pirates of Penzance

Keller plunders ‘Pirates’

Portland Opera's transfer of Ashland's sprightly Gilbert & Sullivan gets lost in the 3,000-seat auditorium's cavernous translation

What a difference a house makes.

When director Bill Rauch’s spritzed-up production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance played at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2011, it was daring not just for its latter-day musical insertions (from the Beatles to Michael Jackson) but also for its setting: it played on the Elizabethan Stage, the festival’s 1,200-seat open-air theater, a space open to birds and bees and rain and the ambient buzz of motorcycles and monster trucks rumbling through town. The production mostly triumphed over those odds, thanks in part to miking that added a slight metallic undercurrent to the actors’ voices but also allowed the music and lyrics to come across crystal-clear. The show was a deserved hit.

Justice will be served: the constables of "Pirates." Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Justice will be served: the constables of “Pirates.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

So when Rauch and Portland Opera struck a deal to recreate the production in Portland, with the same design and production team but a new cast of acting singers rather than singing actors, hopes were high: what might this charming production be like in the enclosed and more soundproof setting of Portland’s Keller Auditorium?

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The very model of a modern major musical

Preview: Ashland director Bill Rauch takes Portland Opera's 'Pirates of Penzance' for a Victorian spin with modern 'grace notes'

At the moment, Frederic doesn’t much look like a pirate. For one thing, he sports a handsome gray top hat; but, after all, this is his wedding. Rather it’s the striped sweatshirt, jeans and Converse that say “modern everyday guy,” not “high-seas scalawag.”

But the fellow’s sartorial anachronisms make sense. He’s not upon Atlantic waves but in a large, black-and-maroon-walled rehearsal room at Portland Opera. It’s an afternoon rehearsal in late April, so he’s partly Frederic, the idealistic 19th-century romantic lead of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, yet mostly Ryan MacPherson, a 21st-century performer preparing for Friday night’s opening at the Keller Auditorium. Meanwhile: as she at once embodies and examines Mabel, Frederic’s love interest, Talise Trevigne twirls about in an old-fashioned, cream-colored silk skirt — with the neon spatter of multi-colored running shoes peeking from underneath.

I get a kick out of you. A G&S pirate chorus line. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

I get a kick out of you: a G&S pirate chorus line. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Along with several other members of the cast and creative team, they’re working on the show’s celebratory closing scene, calibrating choreography, gesture and timing.

“I’d like to put this all together before we move on,” director Bill Rauch says, after an hour or so of worrying over diverse details in small groups. “Can we do it with music and at tempo?”

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