U-M Gilbert and Sullivan Society celebrates its 75th anniversary with pirates, policemen, and paleontologists


UMGASS's 2022 production of The Pirates of Penzance

Left to right: Craig Rettew as The Pirate King and Matthew Grace as Major-General Stanley in costumes for UMGASS's 2022 production of The Pirates of Penzance. Photo courtesy of UMGASS.

With cat-like tread, a rollicking band of pirates will step upon the stage from December 8-11 as they have done about every four years since 1949 when the two-year-old University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society (UMGASS) gave its first performance of The Pirates of Penzance.

Sparkling tunes and lyrics replete with irony, wit, conflict, and romance make it no surprise that UMGASS would celebrate its 75th anniversary with a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s two-act comic operetta. Director David Andrews says, “It’s probably the best known and best loved of Gilbert and Sullivan’s pieces.” Andrews says the show doesn’t just have catchy melodies that people hum on the way out: “Some people are humming on the way in,” he says of the well-known show.  

The fun begins as Frederic is about to be released from his apprenticeship to a band of pirates after a required “21 birthdays.” But since he was born on February 29th, his birthday occurs only in leap years. Does that mean Frederic has to serve over 60 years more? What to do? 

UMGASS presents two productions each year, cycling through the Gilbert and Sullivan catalog, and presents Pirates every four or five years. Normally, each show waits its turn in order, but UMGASS moved Pirates slightly out of sequence this time to stage it in the anniversary season. 

Because UMGASS attracts loyal audiences, many see its productions of Pirates more than once, sometimes with overlapping casts. 

“It’s always a challenge to try to be true to the original material and to bring something new to it,” says Andrews.

Andrews has given the ladies in the mezzo soprano-alto chorus professions instead of parasols, so in this production, pirates, and police share the stage with paleontologists.

“They are often women in bathing suits or frilly dresses,” says Andrews. “This time, they’re devotees of fossil hunter Mary Anning, [an early 19th century English fossil collector]. The paleontologists have fewer frills and more pockets for their tools. The Jurassic coast is not so far from Penzance, on the Southern coast of England, so they’ve sailed a little further east,” he says, adding that beach scenes feature digging for bones instead of picnicking. “When they come into conflict, they [police] have sticks, [pirates] swords, and the ladies have tools. The power dynamic is more balanced, but there are no changes to the script or score, except a reference to picnic items.” 

Andrews directed nine productions for UMGASS, including a previous Pirates in 2013, and played the role of Major-General Stanley in 2009; he has appeared in the company's productions since 2000 and previously served on the UMGASS board. 

The music director is Jordan McKay, who served in the same role for UMGASS’s H.M.S. Pinafore in December 2021. Co-choreographers are Beth Ballbach, who choreographed more than a dozen UMGASS productions, and Phillip Rhodes, who appeared as the Pirate King for UMGASS and choreographed other shows.​

The cast features Beth Ballbach Daniel Fidler, Matthew Grace, Christina Jarad Dean Joyce, Koralynn Kennedy, Richard Knapp, Megan Laine, Heather Nordenbrock, and Craig Rettew 

“There have been productions that have stretched the boundaries to make it more contemporary, and some that have been more faithful,” Andrews reports.

One slight adaptation is of special interest to your reporter.

Randy Napoleon as a pirate in the 1986 production of UMGASS's The Pirates of Penzance.

Future University of Michigan student and jazz guitarist extraordinaire Randy Napoleon made his stage debut as The Pirate Kid in the 1986 production of UMGASS's The Pirates of Penzance. Photo courtesy of Davi Napoleon.

It may have been on Halloween 1985, after our firstborn returned from trick or treating clad as a pirate, that my husband and I noticed UMGASS would be doing a production of Pirates that spring. 

“We have to take him!” I said.

“He should be in it,” Greg said, as Randy swaggered through the room with his candy. 

I don’t know what possessed me to take a nine-year-old to an audition for a University of Michigan production, but there we were, in a room in the Michigan League, with older wannabe pirates about to try out. I don’t know if Steve Krahnke, the director, was humoring us, but he gave Randy a turn, and Randy was the very model of a modern major pirate. 

When I thanked Krahnke after the audition, we talked about how Frederick, an orphan, had become part of the pirate troupe when he was a boy—and before we headed home, the director had decided the production needed a pirate kid.

And so it was that I developed a special affection for Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance, and UMGASS. 

In the playful spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan, Pirates actors over the years have frolicked behind the scenes, often playing pranks on each other. There was the time the men’s chorus sneaked into the women’s dressing room and removed all the lightbulbs from the mirrors; the time the conductor opened his score to find that someone placed a revealing photo inside the cover; and the time performers looked into the wings for cues and found silly signs instead.

The show always went on, triumphantly. 

But for the most part, the fun is onstage, and Andrews promises this production will not be an exception. 

Ann Arbor-based arts journalist Davi Napoleon did her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and holds a doctorate in theater history, theory, and criticism from New York University. She taught theater history and directed at Albion College and taught writing the magazine article, dramatic literature and composition classes at Eastern Michigan University. 

“The Pirates of Penzance” runs from December 8-11 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre in the Michigan League, 911 N. University Ave, Ann Arbor. For tickets and further information, visit umgass.org/tickets.