Pirates. Sailors. Damsels in distress. Modern major generals.
They’re all about to burst onto the main stage as Queens Theatre brings its 2011-2012 season to a conclusion with “Gilbert & Sullivan in Brief(s),” opening June 21 for a two-week run. After that, the show will ship off to Scotland’s prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a showcase for new works similar to New York’s popular Fringe Festival.
Described as a musical farce, the Queens Theatre show was written and directed by the theater’s executive director, Ray Cullom.
He explained, at a recent rehearsal, the premise of the show. The four singers who comprise the cast (Parker Andrews as the inebriated baritone, Kate Chapman as the past-her-prime soprano, Carolann Sanita as the ditsy soprano and Matthew Thompson as the pompous tenor) show up to give a concert, only to discover that their contracts call for them to do the impossible: race through all 14 of the comic operettas that comprise the G&S canon in 60 minutes. A large hourglass, placed conspicuously on stage, is a constant reminder of the rapid passage of time, causing things to get more and more frenetic as the evening progresses.
The show, according to Cullom, “is about these four characters and their relationship with one another.” The actors, in a sense, play themselves, and the musical selections “feed how they interact,” Cullom said.
Tunes both well-known and obscure come from, among other shows, “The Pirates of Penzance,” “The Mikado,” “Ruddigore,” “Iolanthe” and Cullom’s personal favorite, “The Yeoman of the Guard.” Props are grabbed from a large nearby steamer trunk and costume changes are executed with lightning speed.
Though Sanita and musical director Charles Czarneckiworked with Cullom on an earlier incarnation of the show seven years ago, they appear as excited by it’s challenges as the newcomers.
“Each new cast is a new experience,” Sanita said. “This music is not the easiest to sing. You’re running around, you get out of breath, and you have to maintain support in the singing.”
Andrews already has several G&S shows under his belt, but said, “I’ve never done patter in so great a concentration,” referring to the many rapid-fire, rap-like lyrics through which he must navigate in each performance.
For Thompson, who admits his only prior G&S experience was in a cross-gender version of one of the shows, the main challenge “is keeping a through-line throughout,” as he weaves his way from one character to another. Similarly, Chapman has created a mantra which she has repeatedly asked herself throughout rehearsals, “Who am I and what am I saying?,” to help keep everything straight in her mind.
Though G&S were at their creative peak more than 100 years ago, their legacy remains vibrant.
“They pioneered a new art form,” Cullom said, pointing out that no one prior to them had “married dialogue, music and character” they way they did. “Gilbert was a lyricist without peer until Stephen Sondheim came along.”
For Andrews, the pair are to the British what Rodgers and Hammerstein are to Americans.
Prior familiarity with G&S would likely add to an audience’s enjoyment of “In Brief(s),” leading Cullom to say that the show contains “a lot of musical jokes that people who grew up with this will get,” adding that he hopes the uninitiated will “just love the music and it will pique their interest.”
After the show closes here on July 1, the company will have three weeks off before meeting up in Amsterdam and flying to Edinburgh.
Cullom hopes that following its engagement at the festival the show will find its way to London, where he is optimistic that the show will have a commercial future.
“Gilbert & Sullivan in Brief(s)”
When: June 21-July 1; Wed.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m., Sat. at 8 p.m., Wed. and Sat. at 2 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m.
Where: Queens Theatre, Flushing Meadows Park, 14 United Nations Ave. South
Tickets: starting at $25, (718) 760-0064