I was living in Beijing a few years ago when I got wind of plans for a production of Pirates of Penzance. It was an enticing opportunity to get back onstage years after my illusions of a life in the theater were laid low, first by my college director (It takes talent and dedication) and, later, by my lovingly honest spouse, after a star-crossed production of Gogol’s Inspector General (What the hell were you thinking?).
I auditioned with the producer/music director, Nick Smith, a genial, brilliant, if mildly eccentric, Brit who was becoming (and is now decidedly) a musical legend in Beijing. He recognized what stuff I was made of and consigned me to the Pirate Band.
Our first couple rehearsals were note-bashing with Nick. We met our female lead, Mabel, an American college student on break, and our Major-General and Pirate King, but not our male lead, Frederic, who, we were told rather mysteriously, would be joining us soon from Belgrade. We were assured he was a terrific singer who would fit in easily. Nick got us into good starting shape.
At our third rehearsal, we met our stage director, a Serbian former opera singer, whose name I have forgotten, but whom memory has nicknamed Madam Lazonga, and we began to work on blocking.
The Pirate Band is the show’s chorus and, apart from fighting a climactic Act II battle with the local police, spends most of its time milling about trying to look busy, doing whatever pirates do when not actually pirating.
Being a minor character, but onstage much of the time, is not easy. You have to have business — talking, drinking, dozing, yawning — that looks convincing. And, with a group of about seven or eight in pretty tight quarters, movement has to be choreographed, especially in the battle scene, if everybody is to make it to the final curtain without stepping on the scenery, the main characters’ lines, or each other.
In those first on-stage rehearsals, we quickly realized that Madam Lazonga, though enthusiastic, was clueless. If we came up with a good bit of business — a stagger after a drunken swig — it was Wahnderrrful! Wahnderrrful! Kyeep it! Kyeep it! only to be forgotten next time. If, at one rehearsal, we were encamped upstage right, it was Wahnderrrful! Wahnderrrful! Kyeep it! Kyeep it! only to migrate downstage left next rehearsal. Kyeep what? Kyeep what? we desperately wondered.
Rehearsing the Pirates vs Policemen battle was especially fraught. Nick, in a brilliant stroke, had recruited members of his Chinese men’s choir to be the Policemen. They had great, stentorian voices, but one problem: no English.
Madam Lazonga had no Chinese, but, even if she had, choreographing a brawl was way beyond her. Nick spoke fluent Chinese, but he was not going to jump into this bear-pit. So, it was left to us to try to work ourselves and the Policemen through the staging. A few of us spoke some Chinese, but this sort of thing had never come up in class. We were left with pantomime, a growing fury at the mess onstage, and our leader’s echoing sideline cheer, Wahnderrrful, Wahnderrrful! Kyeep it! Kyeep it!
For our Chinese colleagues, this language challenge was nothing compared to the mountain they faced in making their show-stopping number, A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One, sound like actual English. Nick worked with them, and we lent a hand when he was otherwise engaged and we were not pirating. They were eager and fun to work with. They got so they could produce something that bore a distant resemblance to what Gilbert & Sullivan had in mind, though their sharp Beijing R sound made them sound more like deranged Americans than Brits.
And then there was our hero, Frederic, who flew in from Belgrade about two weeks before opening night. Credit to him, he worked hard and, as promised, had a very good voice.
But, such an accent! In Act II, Frederic and Mabel have a duet where, out of loyalty to his fellow Pirates, he refuses Mabel’s loving request to leave them. What should have been Nay, Mabel, nay … when stern Duty calls, I must obey became Nyeh, Myehbel, nyeh … ven shtairn Dyuty calls, Hi myust obyeh!
Myehbel’s response, tinged with her flat midwest-American accent, was the perfect exclamation point to this grand linguistic mash-up.
How we managed to make it to the final curtain I’ll never know, but the show was a smash. The happy couple got it together, though Frederic’s ‘Myehbel’ prompted a few titters.
The Policemen were the hit of the show. They acted with verve and sang with intensity and the utter conviction of those who haven’t a clue what it all means. Their charming new language made their Keystone Cops routine even more hilarious.
The battle scene was always precarious. Miraculously, no one was injured, though, one time, I whipped my plastic sword up so fast and stopped it so suddenly that the blade snapped off, sailed up, descended dangerously, but landed safely. At the end, all was Wahnderrrful! Wahnderrrful!