For Jamibeth Margolis a compelling pleasure of directing Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” is “coming up with the largest possible number of jokes and bits that are not written in. We stick to the text, of course,” she says in a telephone interview from her home in Jersey City, “but we add laughs and surprises. The creative team searches for what Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t include.”
The box that Margolis deals with is the published score, and she is attracted to thinking outside of it. However, she restrains herself. “Audiences already know some of the songs, and we’ll stick to traditional interpretations for those.” She cites “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General, “and “Poor Wandering One” as the two most widely known pieces.
Now in its 21st season, Boheme Opera presents Margolis’ take on the perennially comic Gilbert and Sullivan work that premiered in New York in 1879 on Saturday and Sunday, April 17 and 18 at the Trenton War Memorial. Boehme’s artistic director, Joseph Pucciatti, conducts. Featured singers are William Andrew Stuckey as the Pirate King; David Gagnon as Frederic, the Pirate Apprentice; Keith Jurosko as Major-General Stanley, and Samantha Grenell-Zaidman as his daughter, Mabel. Handfuls of aspiring singers from colleges and high schools in the area join veteran vocalists in the chorus. The design team includes choreographer David Macaluso, costume designer Janell Berte, lighting designer Gerard Jonas, and wig/makeup designers Jared Janas and Rob Greene.
When the curtain rises, Frederic is about to finish his apprenticeship as a pirate in half an hour. The Pirate King reminds him that for the remaining 30 minutes, he is still under contract and invites him to explain why the pirate band is unsuccessful. Frederic says that the pirates are too tenderhearted: the pirates are known to release orphans, and the ships that they capture escape being plundered by claiming to have crews composed of orphans.
Released from his apprenticeship, Frederic encounters a group of girl hikers. One of them, Mabel, agrees to marry Frederic. The pirates claim the other hikers as their wives. All of the girls are the daughters of Major General Stanley. The girls complain of being coerced into marriage, and Stanley claims to be an orphan, in the hopes that the kindhearted pirates will no longer insist on marrying his daughters but will give way to his oppostion to the marriages.
The Pirate King reveals that Frederic’s apprenticeship is not finished, after all. Since Frederic was born on February 29 in a leap year, he technically has had only five birthdays instead of the 21 demanded by his apprenticeship contract. Frederic rejoins the pirates and Mabel agrees to wait 63 years for him.
Director Margolis has dealt in both dramatic and musical shows. “With plays,” she says, “I spend a lot more time working on interpretation of the text, and on the back stories of the characters. In a musical, I spend more time on staging and the overall look of the piece. Usually a musical has a much larger cast than a play, and spending time on the text can be a luxury.
“The approach is generally the same for opera and musical theater,” Margulis says. “Formerly, opera singers just stood and delivered. Now there is more and more stress on acting in opera.” Into my mind pops the pejorative description of immobile opera singers as “park and bark.”
“With both plays and musicals, rich and full character portrayal is fundamental,” Margolis says. “I would never give up character development for staging.” After two rehearsals with the entire company, Margolis devotes a rehearsal solely to fine tuning aspects of presenting character. “This Friday the principals and I will work on dialogue. There will be no singing. We’ll focus on character development and timing.
“We’ll make sure that each character uses a unique cadence in sentence structure. We’ll go line by line and work out which words to stress. We’ll figure out the intentions behind every line.”
A music minor in college, Margolis says, “I play the piano, but I’m not a brilliant pianist. I do what I can to accompany singers. We have a wonderful rehearsal pianist for ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ in Sandy Pucciatti. She’s amazing.”
As a music minor at Ithaca College (she graduated in 1995), Margolis also learned how to read a full musical score where all the parts are arranged vertically. “There’s an advantage in knowing how to read scores, especially for directing opera,” she says. “But it’s not my job.”
On the contrary, casting has been a constant presence in Margolis’ professional career. She was involved in casting all the principals for “Pirates.” Her resume includes association with various casting agencies since her graduation from college in 1995.
“When I’m casting an opera or a musical, I have a certain type in mind,” she says. “At an audition, I consider how someone looks, and their voice type. Glorious voices are important to me. But performers have the ability to change my mind. I keep flexible. I come in with a certain idea, but some auditioners are so prepared, and have such clear ideas of how to present a role, that they are irresistible.
“For this show I stuck pretty much with my own ideas,” Margolis says. “But some auditioners came in with clever ideas of their own. I didn’t use their ideas, but the capacity to develop them shows creativity, and I like creative performers.
“In Pirates’ I have cast some people who I’ve worked with before. As a director, if have a good working relationship with somebody, and know that they’re reliable, will get the job done, and are directable, I lean towards casting them. With every musical I work on, there are some performers who are the same, and some who are new. I have to do what’s best for the current production.”
Margolis directed Boheme Opera’s February performance in the War Memorial of John Atkins’ “Warsaw,” a dramatic musical retelling of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. “It was a tremendous experience,” she says. Since 2004 Margolis has been part of the odyssey of the work, which is headed for Broadway, leading readings, educational performances, and talk-backs about the show.
Now 35, Margolis was born in Atlantic City. Both her parents are educators, associated with Glassboro’s Rowan University. Both of them majored in history in college. “They are extreme history buffs,” Margolis says. “That’s great for me. When I’m doing a show like ‘Warsaw’ I can say, ‘Mom, did this really happen?’ My mom helped me write the study guide for ‘Warsaw.’”
Margolis’ father plays piano and clarinet. She describes both parents as “great lovers and supporters of the arts. They took me to theater, opera, and concerts when I was little.
“In sixth grade I knew that I going into the theater and that nobody was going to change my mind. I had caught the theater bug. I was in a middle school production of ‘Oklahoma,’ and I thought, ‘Go for it.’ By eighth grade I was memorizing recordings and dragging my parents to the theater.”
Margolis graduated from Ithaca College with a summa cum laude bachelor’s degree in drama and directing and, as stated earlier, a minor in music. Her directorial experience ranges from “La Traviata” to “The Merry Widow,” and includes Broadway and off-Broadway productions.
When we spoke, Margulies was surprised by the speed with which “The Pirates of Penzance” was falling into place. “We’ve had two rehearsals of ‘Pirates’ so far,” she says. “The singers are so well prepared that we have already covered seven numbers. That’s really impressive. There is a wonderful collaborative spirit among the performers, Joe [Pucciatti, Boheme’s artistic director], and the choreographer. Rehearsal time flies by. We are surprised when the rehearsal is over. That will translate on stage to an exciting performance.”
The Pirates of Penzance, Boheme Opera, Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton. Saturday, April 17, 7:30 p.m; and Sunday, April 18, 3 p.m. Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Pre-concert talk at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday and at 1:45 p.m. on Sunday. $28 to $73. 609-581-7200 or www.bohemeopera.com.