FORESTVILLE – “A rollicking band of pirates we!” exclaims the cast of freshman through seniors in the current Bishop McNamara High School production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 work “The Pirates of Penzance.”
This exclamation of youthful exuberance best sums up the spirit of this quality production. “The Pirates of Penzance” stands half-way between the world of grand opera and modern musical. We were intrigued that the Forestville Catholic high school here in Prince George’s County was attempting this production, with its challenging operatic-style arias and complex musical score.
Yet Bishop McNamara High School has a unique and welcome focus on the arts: this secondary institution of 880 students boasts some 650 involved in some way with the school’s numerous choirs, bands and African drum ensemble, among other cultural offerings.
It is telling the school even publishes a professional-style playbill for “The Pirates of Penzance.” “In a day and age when schools are dropping arts programs, Bishop McNamara High School is promoting and enhancing them,” said Marco J. Clark, the school’s president and CEO.
“The Pirates of Penzance” is a musical comedy of a young man, Frederic, indentured unwittingly to pirates, though this inept band of seafarers are more fun-loving rogues than murderous villains and are equally Frederic’s friends and adversaries.
Frederic has reached his twenty-first year and looks forward to achieving his freedom so that he might oppose piracy and embrace honesty. The lovable Pirate King presents “a most unusual paradox” to the young man which prevents him from leaving the pirate gang, even if this means he must turn his back on his new love, Mabel, daughter of a major-general.
Perhaps we are meeting in BMHS’s “Pirates” performers whom we might one day see in community and professional theatre productions.
Both Shawn Pelote as Frederic and Terry “TJ” Thomas as the Pirate King have a wonderful stage presence and move easily between the acting and singing demands of the roles.
Jordan Embrack as Mabel has wonderful vocal range, especially heard to advantage in her aria “Poor Wandering One.” The same is true of Sydney Johnson as Ruth, Frederic’s middle-aged “girlfriend” before meeting Mabel. She and Pelote have an enjoyable duet in “Oh, False One, You Have Deceived Me!”
JeVonni King exudes personality as Major-General Stanley and handles the “patter” song “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” with aplomb, including fast-paced tongue-twister lyrics like “I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical, I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical, About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news, With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”
Of particular note are pieces which the cast sings in unison, for here they sound like a professional choir. All of the students wear period-style costumes to give the feeling of the Victorian era in which Gilbert and Sullivan wrote one of the all-time great comic operas.
There is a 19-piece professional-sounding pit orchestra, made up of students in the Tri-M Music Honor Society as well as three professional musicians.
In the performance we saw, alumni Phillip San Gabriel conducted the orchestra in precise and lively fashion as the Sir Arthur Sullivan score requires; in some performances BMHS Fine Arts Department Chair Anthony J. Conto directs the band.
“The music has not been simplified,” Director and Costume Designer Mary Mitchell-Donahue said.
Under the direction of her husband, Dr. Thomas F. Donahue, students have created wonderful sets, especially the “ruined chapel by moonlight” in Act 2, complete with crescent moon, twinkling stars, and Gothic ruins and tombs. Dr. Donahue, incidentally, serves on the faculty at Catholic University’s well-respected theatre department.
Talented students guided but not stifled or overshadowed by talented professionals have realized a successful, engaging production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” Very different musical dramas have been staged in the past at Bishop McNamara High School, including the modern musical “Sister Act” and the vintage musical “Guys and Dolls.” This variety exposes the students and their audiences (including students from other schools) to different types of music and productions as well as fulfills the school’s philosophy that “the mind will not be educated at the expense of the heart.”
On the basis of the success achieved here in the current production, which plays through Nov. 18, we eagerly anticipate Bishop McNamara High School’s Fine Arts Christmas Festival on Dec. 7 and 8, and its spring play about love and ghosts called “The Enchanted,” running from March 22 through 24.