May 07, 2021

Stage Presents Gilbert & Sullivan alive in eastern Maine for 25 years

Eleven years ago, David Blanchette stood at center stage and crooned love songs to a young blonde woman named Sandi, when the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Hancock County last performed “The Pirates of Penzance.”

They were married shortly after the curtain came down.

So when the society revives Gilbert & Sullivan’s best-known pirate caper to celebrate its silver anniversary in February, the show will hold a special significance for its current president.

“There’s a little matchmaking going on from time to time,” said Blanchette, counting off at least four married couples who met in society productions over the years. “That’s the beauty of this organization – we’re a big family.”

With the opening of “The Pirates of Penzance,” Friday, Feb. 2, the theater group will celebrate a 25-year run, with several of its founding members still taking to the stage.

Much of the group’s success can be traced to the camaraderie among its members, said Lee Patterson, who has sung with the society since 1989.

Despite an age range of more than 60 years, the members forge friendships through their dedication to a unique style of musical theater.

“Gilbert & Sullivan is a love-hate relationship – if you love it, you really love it,” said Monique Gibouleau, who is making her society debut in “The Pirates of Penzance.”

In fact, the 14 light operas that resulted from the collaboration of lyricist William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan more than a century ago, have inspired a dedication worldwide that verges on religious.

Hundreds of Gilbert & Sullivan Societies perform the plays continuously. Fans clamor to see a favorite show, 10, 15, 20 times, while actors describe tackling a well-known Gilbert & Sullivan piece as “coming home again.”

“It refuses to die – it’s more than 100 years old,” society director Fred Goldrich said. “It’s never taken the nation by storm, but it hasn’t died out, either.”

Gilbert & Sullivan produced musical satires that were to Victorian England what Saturday Night Live is to modern American society. Gilbert’s lyrics deflated the pomp and pretension of every societal institution, from the famed Royal Navy, to modern art, grand opera and the monarchy itself.

“Gilbert was a real iconoclast,” Goldrich said. “He’ll argue both sides of anything – he can make anything sound ridiculous or plausible, as he chooses.”

Double-entendre, puns and political satire tumble through the lyrics in triple-time. Even the most acrobatic vocalist would miss half the jokes speeding through Gilbert’s clever songs.

But scholars say that the true genius of Gilbert & Sullivan lies in the unlikely collaboration. Battles between the two men are legendary, inspiring several plays and films.

But theatrical manager Richard D’Oyly Carte brought the two together, despite their creative differences. In 1871, he saw the potential of marrying Gilbert’s acerbic lyrics to Sullivan’s sweet melodies.

“Sullivan had the ability, not only to sense what Gilbert was feeling, but to take the edge off it,” Goldrich said. “There are all these little edges that you don’t notice, because Sullivan has made it pretty.”

By the time their sixth show, “Patience,” opened in 1881, Gilbert & Sullivan were international stars with their own theater, The Savoy. The sly humor and catchy tunes captivated their audiences.

“It has much of the same attraction now as it did when it was originally written in Queen Victoria’s Day – it’s just slightly naughty,” said Helen Finlayson, who has faithfully traveled from Belfast to see the Hancock County troupe’s shows since 1991. “Gilbert & Sullivan spoofs a great deal of the problems of society that people can’t do anything about.”

The human stories that drive Gilbert & Sullivan shows are timeless, fans say.

Gilbert & Sullivan, like Shakespeare, captured the essence of human needs, wants and desires,” said Lillian Douville, a Machias resident who attends the society’s performances.

But despite their popularity, Gilbert & Sullivan’s incendiary personalities proved too daunting, and the partnership broke up in 1896, leaving today’s theater groups with a canon of only 14 plays.

“Most of us are on our second or third time around with each show,” Blanchette said. “There’s a low-key attitude to the whole situation – we’ve all done it before.”

In fact, Ellsworth resident Harris Strong and late member Betty Beatty founded the Hancock society on a whim in 1976. At 80 years, Strong has retired from the stage, but remains a dedicated supporter of the society.

“She [Beatty] said, ‘Are you by any chance, interested in Gilbert & Sullivan?’ And I said ‘Yes, I cut my eye teeth on it’,” Strong recalls.

A call for interested singers resulted in the founding group of about 35 members, who performed “Gondoliers” in one of the newly refurbished Grand Auditorium’s first performances. “We’d never had a musical production in Hancock County with an orchestra before,” Strong said. “It was small, but it was live.”

With time, the society’s vocalists, orchestra and reputation grew. It attracted fans who travel from as far as Ohio, California, Massachusetts and throughout Maine to see each year’s offering.

“The shows are impeccably good, just marvelous” continued Douville.

“They certainly do it with good spirit, and they get hammy and funny,” added Waldo resident Ruth Basile who travels 40 miles to see the Gilbert & Sullivan shows with her husband, Gus, every winter.

Although the scores of Gilbert & Sullivan technically are opera, and can be challenging for an amateur musician, the society has always attracted enough skill to support its performances.

“We have so much talent in this semi-rural area – that, to me, is just wonderful,” said Strong, who said he attends more artistic and cultural events today in Hancock County than he did living in New York some 30 years ago.

“The turnover has always worked in our favor, we think we’re getting the cream of the crop,” Blanchette said.

In 1994, Hancock County proved its musical ability by winning an international prize for its performance of “Utopia Limited” at the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England.

“We went over there, competed with the Brits, and beat the pants off them on their own turf,” said Irv Hodgkin, an 18-year society veteran.

When they returned, the society sold out 1,600 seats for a performance of “Mikado” at the Maine Center for the Arts in Orono, and reached an all-time peak of nearly 70 members on stage at once.

“It was a little sticky there for a while,” Patterson said. “We don’t turn anybody away,”

Despite the society’s professional reputation, each show is performed by a cast of volunteers with a donated budget of about $30,000. Half the audience at each show has sung and danced in the chorus at one time or another, members say.

“When you see it and start enjoying it, you want to be part of it,” Strong explains.

And the society currently is in need of new voices for the first time in several years. Membership has slipped to less than 50, and Blanchette hopes to attract a variety of young voices to fill out his cast for next year’s show.

“Some of us are getting a little long in the tooth,” joked Sandi Blanchette.

But with a giant chorus that smoothes over imperfect voices, there’s a role for everyone in a Gilbert & Sullivan Society show, said 16-year veteran John Cunningham.

“There’s always room on stage in one way or another,” Blanchette said.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Hancock County will perform “The Pirates of Penzance” at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, Saturday, Feb. 3, Friday, Feb.9, and Saturday, Feb. 10. Sunday matinees are scheduled for 2 p.m., Feb. 4 and 11. Tickets can be reserved by calling the Grand Auditorium at 667-9500. Tickets are priced as follows; $13 for adults, $10 for seniors and $6 for children under 16 years of age.

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