Kutztown University will be invaded by the zaniest crew of buccaneers of all time when KU Presents! brings the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ hilarious production of “The Pirates of Penzance” to Schaeffer Auditorium, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 9.
The company visited Reading’s Miller Center in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2017, drawing large audiences. Now, after a hiatus thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are once again on tour, under the direction of their founder and artistic director, Albert Bergeret, who also conducts the orchestra.
The NYGASP began in 1974 as a group of alumni of the Barnard College Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Columbia University and friends, who started performing scenes from the operettas as street theater. By 1979, they were performing at various venues in New York City with an orchestra and in 1981, they began touring nationally.
Besides producing all the G&S repertoire in performances known for their musical excellence and skill with humor both broad and subtle, part of the company’s mission is to share this repertoire with children to develop future audiences for the beloved works.
“It’s part of our culture,” Bergeret said in a 2017 interview. “There are words and catch phrases and things about it that are relatable in a way you might not think Victorian English writing would be. That’s why (these shows) are still around and still popular and still resonate with people. They show that troubles and tribulations and the hard things about being alive can be mitigated by humor.”
Bergeret and the company’s director, David Wannen (who also plays the Pirate King), recently shared their journey through COVID in a Zoom interview.
“We were on tour in Folsom, California, and got reports that the governor was shutting everything down,” Bergeret said. “The truck, which I was driving, was halfway to Los Angeles when we were told the next show was canceled, so I turned left at Bakersfield and drove home across the country. At each rest stop more and more restaurants were shutting down.”
Wannen said they only lost the last two dates of that tour, but they arrived in New York and faced not weeks, but “years of shutdowns. But our company did several things very well through that entire process. We’re a tight group, with a family atmosphere, so we’re flexible. We don’t own a theater, so we could stay nimble. We have only three full-time staff, and some part-timers; most of us are freelancers.”
First, they created online video content, so they could stay in touch with their audience and patrons through social media. One of these was a social distance-themed parody of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from “H.M.S. Pinafore,” used by permission of the lyricist, Eliza Rubenstein, whose YouTube version went viral (NYGASP’s version also quickly went viral as well and is still available).
They went on to present a film of “Cox and Box,” an 1866 one-act operetta by Sullivan and his pre-Gilbert partner, F.C. Burnand; a virtual choral performance of “I Have a Song To Sing” from “Yeoman of the Guard”; a series of patter songs called “Patterpalooza;” and a virtual children’s version of “Iolanthe.”
“We stayed active and creative and maintained our payroll (thanks to government programs),” Wannen said. “Our patrons stuck with us; their donations kept us going and kept the lights on. We managed to pull through.”
He and Bergeret agreed that they are still feeling the after-effects of the shutdown, with their New York audiences not fully back yet. “Their behaviors have changed,” Wannen said. “They’re not going out as much. New York City seems different.”
On the other hand, starting in the spring of this year, they have been taking all three of their touring shows (“Pirates,” “Pinafore,” and “The Mikado”) on the road, with substantial audiences. And they have restarted their school programs, including performances, workshops, youth/professional blended performances, and more. Bergeret recently taught a college course on G&S at Lafayette College’s Williams Center for the Arts in Easton, which included a history of the Victorian world around the operettas, themes that are still relevant, and scenes performed by the NYGASP actors.
“Gilbert & Sullivan appeals to a four-generation audience,” Wannen said. “It’s the best thing for families; there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Adults get the satire, and kids like the color and the slapstick.”
“We keep it relevant,” Bergeret said. “The interpretations aren’t hidebound by tradition. We respect the original material but look for ways to make it seem like it’s happening for the first time. We use tweaks to make it current.”
Tickets for New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ “The Pirates of Penzance” are $36; $32 for students and seniors and can be purchased at www.KutztownPresents.org, or by calling the KU Presents! Box Office 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, at 610-683-4092. Established to be the center of cultural life at Kutztown University, KU Presents! serves the campus and community by bringing world-class live arts that entertain, educate, and enrich.