“I am the very model of a modern Major-General
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical …”
Major General Stanley first introduced himself to the raucous Penzance pirates 140 years ago with his famous patter song. The lightening-fast tongue twister celebrates his expertise in everything from “cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse” to the “croaking chorus of the Frogs of Aristophanes,” touching briefly but pointedly on his rather weak military prowess.
W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty” was a resounding hit in New York from its December 1879 premiere and in London just after that. Through the many decades since, the light opera has been close to the hearts of those who love to see Gilbert and Sullivan and also those who love to perform it.
On Thursday, Unadilla Theatre opens its summer season with “The Pirates of Penzance.” Directed by Erik Kroncke with Mary Jane Austin as music director and Alison Cerutti as piano accompanist for the production, the operetta features a community theater cast — including many members with long personal ties to the show.
“‘Pirates’ has jolly music and it’s funny,” explained Bill Blachly, founder of Unadilla Theatre. “Gilbert and Sullivan are grand masters of melody and comedy, and ‘Pirates of Penzance’ is their masterpiece.”
Blachly’s ties to the show go way back — in fact, closer to its original 1879 opening than to next week’s.
“The Pirates of Penzance” was Blachly’s first Gilbert and Sullivan experience. At a boys’ summer camp in southern Vermont, he was cast as Mabel, the ingénue, performing the show in the camp barn in the mid 1930s. Now 95 years old, he was about 10 at the time.
“I thought I was headed to the stage, and it turns out that I was,” Blachly said, also noting the symmetry of his early stage experience in the camp barn and the many years of Unadilla’s productions in its rustic and enchanting sheep barn home.
Others in the cast also have long fond relationships with “Pirates of Penzance.” Four members of the Cerutti family are performing in this year’s production — three, with multiple productions of it under their belts. Brothers Neil and Charlie Cerutti first performed Gilbert and Sullivan with Unadilla in the early 1990s. In Neil’s first, he was the young duty-bound pirate Frederic — now he has aged into Major General. Defying aging, Charlie is substitute Frederic, stepping in for three performances for Andy Roth, who performs as the lead in the other 13 shows. Alison Bruce Cerutti, pianist and married to Neil, has been accompanist across the years, playing Sullivan’s fabulous scores with patter songs, heartfelt ballads, soaring love songs and more. Neil and Alison’s daughter Emma, born during Unadilla’s run of “Princess Ida” and now 13, is in her fifth Gilbert and Sullivan and is Kate, one of the maidens.
“Doing it with family keeps me coming back,” Neil said.
The creative tension between Gilbert and Sullivan led to the timeless nature of their work, observed Neil. Sullivan wanted to be writing grand opera, while Gilbert was inclined to the witty and satirical.
Their contrasts worked together, Neil noted, “So we always feel like we’re in on the joke. Gilbert doesn’t look down on his subjects even when he’s making fun of them, and there are really touching, moving moments.”
“The lines that Gilbert wrote are brilliant and always relevant to whatever political situation you’re enduring at the time,” Alison Cerutti said about Gilbert and Sullivan’s enduring appeal. “In Sullivan’s music there’s a lightness. It’s playful. I like it to sparkle and be delightful.”
The show’s subtitle, “The Slave of Duty,” gives a good hint to the social conventions being satirized. At a young age, Frederic was apprenticed to a band of pirates — mistakenly. As his longtime nursemaid confesses, her instructions were to apprentice him to a “pilot,” who leads ships into harbor, rather than a marauding troop, to serve his term to his 21st birthday.
Duty bound, as a good Englishman, Frederic honors his contract and stays with the pirates, anxiously awaiting his liberating birthday. In fact they’re a softhearted lot, all orphans, who never do harm to other orphans. Coincidentally, almost every crew they encounter is also staffed with orphans, limiting their pirating success. A gaggle of young ladies in the company of Major General Stanly adds new possibilities to the seaborne bachelors’ lives. Romance, Frederic’s unfortunate leap-year birthday, mix-ups, and lots of terrific music ensue.
Come early to picnic in gardens amid sheep pastures.
Directions: From Montpelier: Take Route 2 east to East Montpelier and then North on Route 14 to North Montpelier. One mile north of North Montpelier turn right on Max L. Gray Road and follow it for 5 miles to the theater.
From St Johnsbury: Go to Marshfield Villege on Route 2 West. Turn right on Creamery Street (sign: East Calais). Go up hill bearing left onto the Calais Road. At the third 4-corners turn right on East Hill Road. Follow to Blachly Road to the theater.