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|Lincoln School Brings Light Opera to Santa Monica|
By Melonie Magruder
May 24, 2012-- If you thought that the words “Victorian-era light opera” and “Lincoln Middle School” could never be used in the same sentence, think again. The junior high schoolers just staged a production of “The Pirates of Penzance” with as much full-throated zest and ensemble silliness as was ever seen at London’s Savoy Theatre more than 130 years ago.
To a generation raised on Lady Gaga and the social mores of the Kardashian sisters, the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, first produced in 1879, must seem like a folk tale from another planet.
Nonetheless, director Chad Scheppner and an army of parent volunteers took on the production, which was written originally for professional opera singers. With a little editing, adjustment of vocal keys (the opera is in the public domain and therefore, subject to free tweaking) and generous support from the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation, the youngsters were able to pull off a performance that was engaging, fun and time-transporting.
“This is a culmination of countless hours of work by these kids and it’s a very challenging show,” said Kathleen Rawson, Downtown Santa Monica CEO and a member of the Ed Foundation board. “It’s surprising how professional it looks and sounds.”
Much of the professionalism is thanks to the vision of Scheppner, who runs a local theater school for children called Theatre 31. He was tapped by the Ed Foundation last year for the school’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie” and suggested a different type of musical this year.
“These kids had never even heard of Gilbert and Sullivan before,” Scheppner said. “Now, they come to rehearsals humming these complicated tunes.”
He acknowledged there were challenges in staging “Pirates.” Many of the boy’s voices had not yet begun to change; many of the girls were taller than the boys, rendering the pirate team a little less than threatening to demure maidens; and anachronistic social customs featured in the libretto were met with puzzled silence at first.
“They were definitely introduced to a new vocabulary,” Scheppner said. “The girls in the play are supposed to be shocked at the suggestion that they pull off their shoes and stockings, and dip their toes into the ocean. It was a sort of like reciting Shakespeare that you might not comprehend to an audience who might not understand.”
Such history lessons were played broadly for laughs in this version. Production values as a whole were outstanding, with stage sets and backdrops so professionally rendered, there was an audible gasp from the audience when the curtain went up.
“We purchased the backdrop but everything else – costumes and sets - was donated,” Producer Michelle Fiordaliso said. “One of the kid’s dads volunteered to build the sets and our own students designed costumes and props. This was definitely an all-volunteer effort.”
But even all-volunteer efforts need financial support and, for 30 years now, the Ed Foundation has bridged the gap between the arts funding schools need and what the state can afford to provide in an era of diminishing budgets. In this case, every dollar spent was on display on stage.
“The Pirates of Penzance” was seen as a parody even in its own day, poking fun at respectability, the class division of British aristocracy and the haplessness of a “very model of a modern Major-General,” whose knowledge of things military is pretty much nonexistent.
There were recognizable tunes even today – “With Cat-Like Tread” became “Hail Hail, the Gang’s All Here,” patter songs that predated Cole Porter (all music was provided by piano accompanist Greg Hilfman, who does a yeoman’s job), a swaggering Pirate King, fluttering handkerchiefs from the bevy of beauties that are Major-General Stanley’s daughters and the Major-General himself (Cashel O’Malley in Saturday night’s performance), whose feather-topped helmet and questionable courage were played with as much antic zaniness as any Broadway production.
Classic lines continue to elicit groans and chuckles: “Well, he can’t have my Cate and Edith too!” “General Stanley is no orphan! And furthermore, he never was one!” And if all the frayed story lines come miraculously together at the end of Act II in one gigantic ensemble chorus number, it’s just the magic of theatre.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to see this production has sailed with the tide. But continuing support from the Ed Foundation, some dedicated parents and inspired students should bring even more musical adventure next year.
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