Now maybe more than ever, Manhattanites go looking for something entertaining during the summer months and, spoiled as we are by the McCain series, K-State theater and our other school year alternatives, we have some trouble finding anything theatrical to divert us.
So one looks out of town. There’s Music Theater in Wichita and I think there’s Starlight Theater in KC, but one doesn’t need to travel that far to be amused. The Columbian in Wamego and the Stiefel in Salina have summer shows. And then there’s the Great Plains Theater in Abilene.
Abilene is an easy drive. If you haven’t been out to see this professional and semi-professional company do a play or musical, this is a good summer to go out. Its is the company’s 25th year, and they have gotten, if anything, better as the years have gone on.
The first of their summer shows is Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” a “musical” packed with loads of delights. It is a familiar piece. But each production has its own attractions.
Last winter’s K-State student version was dominated by talented choruses of pirates, young ladies and police. The GPT staging emphasized the Major General character, played by Corbin Eakes, who has appeared on K-State stages in the past. His take on the character was not radical, but it did have just the least little touch of Ed Wynn in it.
A number of the members of the cast were either K-State familiars or Manhattanites. Director Mark Hanson had the right people for the parts, and brought in some talent to serve as soloists. Some of them were familiar from earlier GPT productions, including Matthew Aaron, the Pirate King, who was returning for his fourth season in Ike town.
Layne Roate, an Actor’s Equity member, has played in this company before, too. His Frederic was especially accomplished. But the thing is, one liked him best for never departing from his character. And everyone in the cast was good about staying in his or her part.
They were also close to line perfect, and they sang as if they had rehearsed intelligently. Now in an operation as relatively small as GPT the sets (functional) and costumes (where does one find so many parasols?) and band instrumentation (piano and electric keyboard) are limited. But if the show is good and the cast performs with verve, those minor limitations don’t hinder the audience’s enjoyment.
Hanson’s take on the show made seeming reference to Joseph Papp’s famous New York Public production that was later filmed, with Kevin Kline tearing up the stage as the Pirate King. This show had his long strides, a hint of Rex Smith’s whimpers, and the suggestion of “Keystone Kops” in the movement of the police.
But thankfully the Abilene show didn’t rearrange “A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One” in the way the Papp version did. And the GPT production was generally classic. We got the real 1879 show, and it still delights.
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote a series of 14 “operettas” for a company owned by Richard D’Olyly Carte (read that name aloud), the man who build London’s Savoy Theater. These entertainments, which include “The Mikado” and “H.M.S. Pinafore,” drew and amused crowds around the world. The best known of them have been done by school and amateur groups for years and are often credited with having inspired the American Musical.
Maybe “Pirates” is the best of them. Fredric, an idealist, has just finished his time as an apprentice to a set of incompetent English pirates who let anyone go who claims to be an orphan. He agrees to lead the local police against his old mates. But then he discovers that his duty to the law and to his fiancee and her family (including the patter song master General) must be ignored because of an odd tick in his contract with the pirates.
The story is loopy fun. The songs are terrific and memorable. And the Great Plains Theater production did “Pirates” full justice.
Locals who missed this show can take heart. There’s always another production coming up at GPT. Next on their calendar is a recent musical version of 70s disaster movies called “Disaster!”