Thespis Beautifully Personifies the Pittsburgh Savoyards’ Tradition of Gilbert & Sullivan
By Yvonne Hudson
Bringing the works of Gilbert and Sullivan to life with passion and regularity, The Pittsburgh Savoyards are always about making history, so rarely are some of these witty and topical operettas performed. Kudos are in order for marking the 85th season of performances by this venerable regional troupe and committing to producing the “lost” G&S opera Thespis, a Pittsburgh premiere.
The show looks and sounds terrific. Strong acting and singing carry the story. The orchestra excels. And anyone who enjoys Gilbert & Sullivan will appreciate the pure passion of all the players. A little (or big) dose of theatre in the community might not cure what ails you, but laughter is good medicine—something to savor.
At this juncture in the group’s history, one of the best venues the Savoyards have had is a leading character. The Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center is the new performance home of the Savoyards, where the orchestra and singers enjoy a lovely acoustical hall that surpasses many of the group’s recent homes. Likewise, the technical opportunities are enhanced—lighting and scenic elements are professionally accommodated.
Thespis, OR: The Gods Grown Old stage is considered the first collaboration of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. As the score was never published, this Pittsburgh premiere is in good hands with the dedicated Savoyards, who have performed virtually every musical work referenced in the score.
The plot is simple, really, but serves up the right amount of topsy-turvy silliness for which G&S works are known. The setting is Mount Olympus, where the aging gods face the foibles of time with a dash of regret. A troupe of thespians—led by manager Thespis—arrives to picnic on the legendary summit. When they all meet, a bargain is struck. The actors like this place, and the gods want to check out life on Earth. Each group thinks they can improve one another’s territory, and they switch places for a year. Alas, not all theatre folk are good managers. When the gods return, some very critical things are awry. But somehow—as is wont in G&S—all things work out in the end.
Guy Russo commands the Savoyards singers and full orchestra in a challenging music compilation by Arthur Sullivan and more. The music Sullivan originally wrote for Gilbert’s libretto was not published despite more than 60 performances in 1871 over the Christmas and New Year season. But the artistic duo then mined Thespis for pieces in their subsequent works.
Others have lent a hand to have a performable score. In this production, the score of composer and former University of Pennsylvania musical director Bruce Montgomery is applied to close the historical gap.
Strains of many familiar melodies and variations on Sullivan entertain from the overture through the finale. The 13 songs then delve into melodies that many listeners will know. That delightfully makes Thespis a treat for G&S fans, who will enjoy the familiar strains of classics and the inevitable clever lyrics. The libretto is projected on two screens on either side of the proscenium, giving the audience a significant advantage in catching the cheeky rhymes and delightfully interwoven lines of quarters and even sextets.
Robert Hockenberry aptly directs the two-act comic opera; he creatively stages a wide range of artists. The director shares some history of Thespis in his informative program note. An early career commission for G&S, the work was composed and performed in record time, perhaps so not ready for critics that some graciously returned to review the production later in the run. The collaborators didn’t work together for a few years, then apparently recycled pieces of Thespis into other works. The Savoyards chose native Pennsylvanian Montgomery’s score and orchestral arrangement for its Sullivanesque style.
The Savoyards’ lifeblood is its volunteer membership, with many of those on stage serving in other capacities. Joyfully, these productions showcase rising stars whose experience is bolstered by some of the challenging roles. This combination of passionate chorus members experienced Savoyards in leading roles, and some of the region’s rising stars in starring roles provided the group with advantages. Singing top roles in these operettas is almost a rite of passage, for the characters are timeless, and the scores are beloved and demanding.
In Thespis, the leading roles are also charged with vocal proficiency and plot directing. Happily, singers in several key roles are sung by graduates of area university music programs. The title role is strongly performed with panache by Logan Newman, a Carnegie Mellon music alumna and longtime member of the chorus. Having sung roles such as the Pirate King (Pirates of Penzance), Newman has the sass and savvy for the central role of the manager of a traveling troupe of thespians. His charming baritone suits the part, and he has great fun with the manipulative manager’s ways.
A very large cast adeptly performs a score of great variety. This is an epic milestone production in so many respects, with 42 singers and an orchestra of 35 instrumentalists. There are 22 singers in the roles of the main characters (with 12 doubling in roles). A chorus of 10 portrays “aged deities,” while another 10 comprise the chorus of thespians—gods vs. Actors—what could possibly go wrong.
And a fun reference to other G&S works is visualized by the costume parade from past Savoyard productions. The chorus depicting the thespians who arrive on Mount Olympus each suggests a character from a G&S operetta. In addition to varied maidens–including the young ladies of Penzance, Venice, and Princess Ida’s castle–there’s a Yeoman of the Guard and an assortment of costumed male choristers recalling choruses from Titipu to the Tower.
The lobby and facility are wonderfully comfortable for the audience members. A large parking lot adds to the convenience, as does an accessible auditorium and spacious lobby and reception spaces. The Masonic Center is easily reached from the northern highways, even for first-timers. The reward is enjoying the show in the best facility the Savoyards have occupied for many years. This venue move, combined with the group’s rehearsal and black box space in Belleview, truly empowers the troupe to reach new goals.
Since 1938 (with only a few pauses due to major wars), the Pittsburgh Savoyards have carried the G&S standard consistently in this region. Musically, these works are challenging and charged with the flavors of more “serious” classical works. The canon requires the focus and study that informs the effective performance of the musical theatre canon that followed and, particularly, comedy that relies on substantial storytelling, wit, and musicality. Be happy the youngest chorus member, 8-year-old Karissa Eckman, performed with her mother on stage even as sister Tia Mikesell worked as a costume assistant behind the scenes. The Savoyards’ long tradition of families learning music and theatrical craft bodes well for the future of both community and professional theatre. After all, it is built on eight decades of sharing the charm and wit of Gilbert & Sullivan as a foreshadowing of more joy from performing and attending live performances.
The Pittsburgh Savoyards conclude their 85th season this weekend with three performances and several streaming opportunities. Live performances continue at The Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center, 3579 Masonic Way, on Friday and Saturday, May 5 and 6 at 7:30 pm and on Sunday, May 7 at 2:30 pm. The Saturday and Sunday performances will be live-streamed via admission online.
All tickets are on sale at www.pittsburghsavoyards.org and the box office before live events with discounted admission available for children, students, and seniors
Detailed cast listings and background on Thespis and the company are on the Pittsburgh Savoyards website.
PLEASE NOTE: The Pittsburgh Savoyards may require patrons to wear masks at the troupe’s discretion during the performance.