Smile Politely

Students shine in Pirates

The Champaign Urbana Theatre Company (CUTC) debuted this years’ production of The Pirates of Penzance (Music by Arthur Sullivan, Book and Lyrics by William Gilbert) last Thursday in the Harold & Jean Miner Theater at Parkland College. This production, which stars around 30 middle school and high school students of the Champaign-Urbana community, is the 10th annual Kathy Murphy Student Production, and it was clear to me that this musical held a special place in the hearts of many of the theater-goers who attended opening night. With the opening notes of the overture, I noticed audience members bobbing their heads in anticipation and grinning broadly when the bawdy thieves first appeared onstage.

It was my first time viewing the production, as a relative newcomer to the Champaign community, and I can see why so many community members come to support CUTC year after year. Though the musical is limited in terms of its choreography (which consists mostly of the occasional box-step and a whole lot of jazz fingers and posing with attitude), the vocal performances certainly put these young actors and actresses through their paces. I was particularly impressed with Mabel, the female lead (played by University Laboratory High School senior Natalie Dullerud), who glides effortlessly through soprano scales with an operatic maturity.

Pirates, directed by Dawn Harris, tells the story of an indentured servant named Frederic (played by University Laboratory High junior Timmy Purnell) who is freed from his bondage to a Pirate King (played with Jack Sparrow-esque swagger by senior Quinn Murphy) after his 21st birthday. In a reversal of Miranda in The Tempest, another famous nautical play, Frederic is a naïve young person who has had no interaction with the opposite sex other than with that of his older companion. The only woman Frederic has ever seen is Ruth (played by Julia Welle, senior at the High School of St. Thomas More), an “aging” woman of 47, who appears complete with grey hair and copious wrinkles. 

Ruth exploits Frederic’s ignorance of the fairer sex, leading him to believe she is the epitome of feminine beauty. But when Frederic bids his pirate friends and their ship farewell to go exploring on land, he meets Mabel, a beauty of his own age with whom he falls madly in love. Realizing he has been misled, Frederic abandons Ruth to marry Mabel, but his pirate past comes back to haunt their happy ending.

As for the scorned Ruth: while Frederic transforms into an officer and gentlemen, she takes his place on the Pirate King’s ship. Ruth sheds her restrictive Victorian garb and dons a swashbuckling purple and hot pink ensemble, a contrast from the rest of the dopey, giggling female characters who flounce around the stage in pastels, frills, and lace. Ruth’s new looks seems to suggest that one can be fearlessly girly but also kick butt. 

If only the production had sought to push this portrait of feminine strength of bit further and resisted, at least with Ruth, the pairing off of couples at the end of the show. It would have been much more satisfying to see Welle — who was very good at delivering that arms-crossed and rolling-eyed brand of womanly sass — reject the advances of the police officer who sidles up beside her in the final number, instead of beaming and linking arms with him as she does in the show. This would have provided a much-needed departure from the dewy Mabel and her horde of boy-crazy sisters, all of whom practically leap into the arms of every male character that encounters them.

But despite this qualm, The Pirates of Penzance is still a deeply entertaining production and a display of the impressive young talent in Champaign-Urbana.  The production will run June 18-21.  For ticketing information, visit CUTC’s official website.

[Editor’s note, per the CUTC website: Due to technical limitations of wireless service at Parkland, internet sales close 3 hours prior to showtime. Please purchase your tickets in person at the box office.]

Photos by Scott Wells.

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