Pittsburgh’s oldest theater company does it again

By by Sarah Simkin

‘ In the age of endless entertainment variety, repetition is rare. But repetition is what… ‘ In the age of endless entertainment variety, repetition is rare. But repetition is what The Pittsburgh Savoyards is famous for. Since 1938, the non-profit community theater has performed exclusively Gilbert and Sullivan operas. The 13 operas are the most frequently performed stage productions second only to Shakespeare. ‘No one else has ever grabbed and held public attention for this long,’ said Sally Denmead, a company member since 2004 and current director and choreographer. ‘Even though they are set in the Victorian era, these stories are timeless. The things that motivate people haven’t changed over the centuries.’ The theater company takes its name from the Savoy Theater in London, where many of the operas co-written by librettest W.S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan premiered. Groups throughout the world show their devotion to Gilbert and Sullivan’s works by using the name ‘Savoyards.’ The Pittsburgh Savoyards is the oldest continually performing theater company in Western Pennsylvania. Guy Russo, the Savoyards’ music director for the past 10 years, said the quality of the material is what has kept the theater company together for so long. ‘Gilbert and Sullivan operas have clever lyrics combined with very beautiful music. The love of this music has been passed down from one generation to the next,’ he said. Oftentimes two or three generations of families are involved in a Savoyards production. Jack Mostow, a company member since 1978, participated in several productions with his wife and both his daughters. He said the operas are beloved by his family because they ‘poke fun at things that still need to have fun poked at them, and probably always will, in a gentle and humorous way.’ Members of the company range in both age and experience, from teenagers performing in their first show to senior citizens in their 30th or 40th season. Actors occasionally reprise previous roles, but newcomers frequently appear in each production. ‘It’s a combination of veterans and new blood. It’s a very friendly group, not cliquey. We always welcome newcomers,’ said Mostow. The family-friendly opera has a loyal fan base, which Denmead hopes will help the theater company overcome the current economic trend of decreased spending on entertainment. ‘We’re trying to grow our audience and get the word out to audiences that don’t know about us yet. That will be our next challenge,’ she said.’ The company makes tickets available to schools and other nonprofit groups and is in the process of developing more community outreach programs. The Savoyards hopes to teach through its productions not only young performers, many of whom experience professional theater for the first time through working with the company, but the audience as well. ‘Your vocabulary just blooms!’ said Denmead of the educational effects of Gilbert and Sullivan operas.’ Though most productions feature professional directors, the vast majority of those involved with the performances, from performers and musicians to crew and administrators, are volunteers. ‘Having time to do something just for the love of it is challenging these days, so assembling a cast and crew can be difficult,’ said Russo. Savoyard productions has a 22-piece orchestra and casts as large as 30. Finding theater space has also been challenging as rents on venues continue to climb. The lack of a permanent home posed several difficulties for the company, from attempting to produce shows without an administrative office to storing costumes and set pieces wherever possible. The company currently performs in the Andrew Carnegie Free Library Music Hall in Carnegie. Each season consists of two full productions. Tickets are offered to the public at $17 for adults and $14 for students. This spring’s production is ‘Iolanthe,’ which tells the story of a conflict between the British House of Lords and the Fairy Queen. ‘ ‘Yes, it’s funny, and yes, it’s poignant, but ‘Iolanthe’ was never called a comedy or a tragedy. It’s a fairy opera. It deals with real themes and human emotions within a fairy tale,’ said Denmead. ‘There’s a lot of silliness, but a lot of very clever subtle humor as well,’ agreed Russo.