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Students revel in performing a Gilbert and Sullivan favorite

The very model of a not-so-modern major musical opens at MIT on Thursday, Nov. 21 with the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players' production of "Pirates of Penzance." Now in fevered rehearsal, the show runs through Nov. 24, including two weekend matinees.

"Pirates" will be performed in La Sala de Puerto Rico in the Stratton Student Center. For ticket information, click here.

The light opera tells the story of Frederic, who, upon release from indenture to the Pirate King, finds an island of hearty young maidens and falls in love with Mabel, daughter of the Major General. It's a sad mismatch until petticoat-like layers of mistaken identity unfurl to hilarious ends.

"Pirates" opened in New York in 1879 and in London in 1880. It was recently revived on Broadway in 1981, starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. That production inspired the 1983 movie, also featuring Kline and Ronstadt. The MIT G&S Players are in it for the fun.

"The charm of Gilbert and Sullivan is the witty libretto telling an absolutely absurd story set to somewhat witty music," said Stuart A. Stanton, a graduate student in aeronautics and astronautics. Stanton plays the role of Frederic, a "second shot" for him, since he played Frederic in a high school production.

The role is "fun but also challenging, since Frederic is on stage just about the whole show," Stanton said.

Freshman Miranda E. Knutson is rehearsing for her role of Mabel, Frederic's love interest. Knutson has been aware of Gilbert and Sullivan since early childhood; her parents started taking her to G&S musicals when she was a few months old. She's a first-timer with the MIT G&S Players.

"I've always wanted to play Mabel. As a high soprano, I absolutely adored the notes she gets to sing. It's a lot of fun how much she believes she's a fairy-tale princess," Knutson said.

Sonya C. Tang, a junior in chemistry, played one of the Major General's daughters in a high school production of "Pirates"; next week she'll play Ruth, the Pirate Maid of Work. "I fall in love with Frederic, but he finds me too old and casts me away. But I come back in Act II seeking revenge with the Pirate King. It's a great role to play," said Tang, who also serves as assistant stage manager and publicity manager for "Pirates" and as publicity officer for the MIT G&S Players.

Tang finds the delight of Gilbert and Sullivan in its "good balance. The music is gorgeous and challenging but the shows are very comedic. I love Mabel's [song] 'Poor Wandering One,'" she said.

Kristin R. Brodie, a senior in materials science and engineering, plays Kate, one of the Major General's many daughters. Brodie has "loved the play for years. I've been a huge fan of the Kevin Kline productions since I was a little girl. Gilbert and Sullivan are just cheesy and funny, with the operatic charm I enjoy so much. It's opera without so many of the large bodies and shaking double chins." Brodie, whose mother is an opera singer, has played the violin since she was four.

"Pirates" offers challenges, too, such as learning new songs and new music. Then there's the, ahem, correctness issue.

"I've never been cast as a ditzy person before, and goodness! The daughters in this musical are such bimbos! I recommend seeing the show for them," said Brodie, with just a hint of irony.

Musical theater from the Victorian era and MIT may seem a surprising pair at first. For the MIT G&S Players, the fey spirit and technical sophistication of shows like "Pirates" and last year's "H.M.S. Pinafore" reflect an underappreciated aspect of life at the Institute.

Said Knutson, "G&S is a lot more sophisticated and technical than normal musicals, and I think the lightness of the plots fits MIT. There's no worry of whether it makes sense. It's just fun. I've found that spirit strong at MIT."

Orchestra manager Steven M. Alpert, a freshman, wasn't even going to bring his violin to MIT, and now he's an integral part of the "Pirates" production. The experience has affirmed his sense of the vitality of the MIT arts community.

"There are many people at MIT who have artistic sides to them--walk down Building 4 in the afternoon and you can hear the euphonies of dozens of people practicing individually or in small groups. The common misconception is that we're just an engineering school, but people have a wide variety of artistic interests," he said.

"There are a lot of people who enjoy acting, music, humor · all the elements that go into this show. There are so many acting groups around here, and so many performing groups, that G&S is clearly one of the many ways MIT students love to express themselves when they have a chance," Alpert said.

All four major roles in "Pirates" are played by MIT students this year, and Tang said she was "thrilled to have had so many freshmen in our show. I hope they'll continue to audition for our upcoming shows."

Formed in 1988, MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players is a volunteer group of students and others who perform the works of Sir William S. Gilbert and/or Sir Arthur Sullivan. MIT G&SP occasionally performs other works from the Victorian period.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 20, 2002.

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