A challenging musical doesn’t have to be serious, and an old musical doesn’t have to be stuffy. Young Performer’s Theater in Sitka proves both with this weekend’s performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Pirates of Penzance.’ The largest show in YPT’s six-year history, two full casts will take turns staging the very model of a major musical.
The first thing I see, as I’m walking up the creaky stairs to the attic is a “I’d turn back if I were you,” sign, identical to the one that gave Dorothy the shivers in “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s a little ominous, but if you turned back, you might miss the magic.
“We have Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum from Alice in Wonderland over there, we have the brick wall from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have archery from Robin Hood,” Zeke Blackwell tells me, as he points to props around the attic.
Blackwell directs Young Performers’ Theater at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. YPT has turned the attic that stretches the length of the Yaw building on the Sheldon Jackson campus, into Sitka’s biggest costume closet. It’s full of the props from previous shows- from the small, meticulously handcrafted Tin Man’s heart, to the big, wiggly piano from Seussical the Musical. And then there are the costumes.
There really are hundreds upon hundreds of costumes, from dresses, to bathrobes, to trench coats, hanging in neat rows. There are easily over 100 hats hang from the rafters.
“Straw hats and berets, top hats and beanies, police hats and crowns,” Blackwell says pointing to the different types, even the Cat in the Hat’s hat.
The rows of brightly colored clothes and foam props (that look deceptively heavier than they are) are evidence of all the work YPT has done over the last few years. And in a week or so, they’ll be adding even more props and costumes to the collection- rocks and swords and pirate hats.
“Oh, and also a pirate ship will be joining us up here,” Blackwell tells me, laughing. “So that’s exciting.”
“Is there going to be room for it?” I ask him. The attic seems pretty full.
“Yeah, there’s always room for more up here!” he laughs.
That’s because the troupe is putting on Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.”
Authur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert wrote “Penzance” in the late 1800s. It’s a comedy, mostly music with a little dialogue- which is what makes it an operetta. It marks a time when the opera art form was evolving, making space for modern musical theater.
“They were taking this traditional opera, and making it more story driven and more scenic based,” Blackwell says.
It’s heavy on the wordplay, and very silly. In the story, 21-year-old pirate Fredric is ready to leave the band of bloodthirsty pirates who raised him.
“He had told his parents he wanted to be a pilot and they misheard him and made him an apprentice to a pirate,” says Blackwell.
Fredric, now a fully-grown adult, vows to destroy the pirates, but here’s the rub.
“The pirate king returns and reveals that Fredric was born in leap year,” Blackwell says. “So he’s not actually twenty-one by birthdays, he’s only five. That means he’s still one of the pirates.”
“I love how goofy this show is,” says Stephanie Eakin. She’s a senior at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. She plays the pirate queen in the high school cast.
“She’s brave, she’s daring- she’s the leader of this band of pirates,” Eakin says. “She’s not full of herself but she’s proud to be who she is and she won’t let people take her down for who she is.”
Eakin says she loves the humor that comes from the cop characters, and her characters interactions with Major General- you know, the one who is “the very model of a modern major general.”
Sitka High senior Anja Brooks-Schmidt plays one of Fredric’s love interests- she says just because the play is old and the source material challenging- that doesn’t mean it’s stuffy.
“Even though it sounds kind of intense on paper, I think that if you go, you’ll love it,” she says “It shows that even though a show is old, it can still be really funny.”
Blackwell says Young Performers Theater is more than just putting on a good show- students are learning how to listen, to be responsible to each other and build a community.
“The skills that you learn in theater and in the arts in general are skills that will serve you no matter what your pursue in your life,” he says. “I’m cognizant of that and I try to make this a program where that is always true, where you’re joining us and you’re going put on a great show and have fun but you’re also building skills to be a better human.”
But for those who might seek deeper meaning from the audience’s perspective, Blackwell says don’t look for moralizing here.
“The point of this show is, by and large, simply to entertain, which is something that I think is needed in all points in history,” he says. “There’s enough seriousness in the world and tragedy in the real world, that entertainment is its own reason for existence.”
“Pirates of Penzance” opens this weekend…on…leap day. So while the operetta is 141 this year, Fredrick the pirate will only be turning 40.
Sitka Fine Arts Camp’s Young Performers Theater program presents The Pirates of Penzance 7 p.m. Friday, February 28, 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, February 29, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 1, at Odess Theater