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'The Pirates of Penzance' Preview: “A Gateway Drug of Operetta”

Pirates of Penzance, performed by Harvard Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players.
Pirates of Penzance, performed by Harvard Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players. By Courtesy of Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players
By Amelie Julicher, Contributing Writer

It's a Friday night around 6:00 and a group of brave and talented artists has courageously made its way to their rehearsal space in the Quad. Quickly, doors are being opened and closed. People are rushing inside, where the heater is effectively suppressing the cold November air. “Pirates, pirates!” director and Crimson Arts Editor Chloe E.W Levine ‘22 shouts. The adrenaline rises. The tension is palpable. Then, the orchestra starts to play, cutting through the silence. The rehearsal begins.

“It’s a tough time of the year for everyone’s physicality,” Levine says. Cough drops and tea have become a staple for many in the cast and crew. While every other Harvard student can take a step back from their daily routine to battle a cold, this group has to power through. Time is a scarce resource these days. After all, it’s only a matter of days before everyone must draw their swords.

On Nov. 11 at the Agassiz Theatre, the Harvard Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players will celebrate the much-anticipated premiere of “The Pirates of Penzance,” a comic opera. “We want this show to be a celebration of theater after having been away from this space for so long“, Levine says. The operetta revolves around the life adventures of Frederic, a young courageous pirate apprentice, torn between duty and love, past and present. It is a comedy about one of humanity’s greatest questions: Follow your heart or follow your mind?

“Gilbert and Sullivan were very naturalistic for their time, they were trying to breathe life into their characters,” Levine says. “In order to honor their actual intention, a lot of what my work as a director is, retrofitting intention to things that were written for the rhyme.” Humor is ever-changing. Jokes that were hysterically funny in the 19th century are inevitably bound to be less well-received in the 21st century. Thus, Levine tried to transfer the old golden standard of comedy onto today’s society, all in the hope of creating a version of the show that makes sense to a modern empathetic audience member.

However, comedy is not the only thing that changes with time — so does society. Sadly, “Pirates of Penzance“ refers back to ingrained stereotypical gender roles. The girls in the show are merely pretty and bubbly — that’s it. To avoid falling into this pitfall, the director and the entire cast sat down and talked about each girl as an individual, discussing their inner feelings and deepest desires. “Sometimes other productions don’t really look into that and just portray them as silly, air-headed girls, but they are interesting people”, one of the actresses, Evelyn J. Carr ‘25, says.

To everyone feeling intimidated by the fact that “Pirates of Penzance“ is an operetta — don’t be! “This show is the perfect introduction into opera”, Max Allison ‘25 says. Allison plays the romantic lead, Frederic. While thrilled to be back to live theater, this excitement is connected to a certain level of anxiety and respect. “This is my first time singing in an operatic style, it’s very different from what I have done previously,” he says.

“I hope the audience leaves with a sense of joy of finally being back in the theater and with the reminder to not take themselves too seriously,” Olympia M. Hatzilambrou ‘24 says. Hatzilambrou, who plays Mabel, the female lead and Frederic’s romantic interest, has a very personal connection to Gilbert and Sullivan’s work as well. “Pirates was my gateway Gilbert and Sullivan show,” she says. “Mabel has been my dream role since 8th grade, it’s wonderful to finally get to fulfill that dream, especially with such a brilliant cast and crew!”

They certainly share a very special bond, strengthened by the stress and anxiety, but also the excitement and joy, of putting on a show as a team. “We are all here to help each other become better artists,” Hatzilambrou says.

“Everyone is here to support each other and make sure that you are having fun, and that you are healthy and happy!” Carr says. “We have the perfect balance between getting the work done but also having fun. We really do have an incredible director.”

“The show is so confusingly brilliant”, Hatzilambrou says. Confusingly brilliant indeed.

A slow romantic waltz, sword fights, a kick line, swashbucklers, and the iconic bend-and-snap, this rendition of “Pirates of Penzance“ has it all.

“The Pirates of Penzance“ premiers on Nov. 11 at 8 pm at the Agassiz Theatre, with additional performances scheduled for the following weekend.

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