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Savoyards celebrates 75th anniversary of singing satire

| Saturday, April 12, 2014, 7:52 p.m.
Greg Kornides
The sailors of the Pinafore clean the deck in a scene from Pittsburgh Savoyards 'H.M.S. Pinafore.'

There are lots of theater groups in the United States and elsewhere that devote themselves to performing the works of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

But, few have been around as long as The Pittsburgh Savoyards.

On April 26, the semi-professional, community-based, nonprofit theater company will mark its 75th anniversary.

Pittsburgh Savoyards board president Marc Daffner credits the company's longevity to Gilbert and Sullivan.

“The fact is, everybody loves Gilbert and Sullivan operas. They combine a high skill level with a fun story line, and they happen to be in English,” says Daffner, a Green Tree resident. “They are lighthearted, fun shows.”

To celebrate this milestone, the Pittsburgh Savoyards will host the Grand Dukes Dress Ball at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.

The Pittsburgh Savoyards Orchestra and the River City Swing Band will provide music for the ball, which also is a fundraiser for the organization.

Also planned for the evening is entertainment by Pittsburgh Savoyards performers, an exhibit of costumes, programs and photos from past productions and other items from the organization's archives and a silent auction. Formalwear is suggested, and Victorian-era wear is encouraged.

“It should be interesting. There's a lot of history,” says Lynette Garlan, a member of the Savoyard's board who suggested they hold the anniversary celebration in the ballroom of the Twentieth Century Club, which is where the Pittsburgh Savoyards made their debut in 1938.

“It's nice to go back after all these years,” Garlan says.

The Pittsburgh Savoyards took their name from London's Savoy Theatre, where Gilbert and Sullivan's works had their debuts from 1885 to 1900.

Each season, the Pittsburgh Savoyards performs two of the comic operas that British dramatist Gilbert and composer Sullivan created together from 1871 to 1896. The shows are in the auditorium of the Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie.

There are 13 works in the official canon, 15 if you count “Thepsis,” their first work for which most of the original musicl has been lost, and “Pineapple Poll,” a ballet score that Charles Mackerras arranged from Gilbert and Sullivan's scores.

Some titles are audience favorites that turn up frequently — “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado.” Others are performed less often, such as “Utopia, Limited,” which the company performed for the first time in March.

That might be one reason the company survives, says Guy Russo, a Forest Hills resident who has been the company's music director and conductor since 1998. “It's a different experience when you focus on one genre of musical theater,” Russo says. “Maybe part of the lure is the type of person who will come to a Gilbert and Sullivan production.”

Because the company is so closely focused on one team of songwriters, audiences are loyal. “Part of it is just love of the musical itself. If you are a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, you are one for life. It's close to unique to find not only (a company performing) operettas, but you won't often find comic satire set to music.”

Daffner says the Pittsburgh Savoyards has little difficulty attracting a wide variety of ages to its shows.

Some are hardcore fans who have been attending for 40 or more years. It's not unusual for some of them to watch the shows while following it note-by-note with the printed score in their laps. “They call up later if the lines are wrong,” Daffner says,

A busload of students from West Virginia University also makes a trip to each of the shows.

Also, in an era where volunteers are scarce, the Pittsburgh Savoyards has no problem filling roles both onstage and off, Daffner says.

“I've been surprised. This newest generation in the cast has graduates from colleges and high schools auditioning because they want to do (these musicals), not to boost their resumes,” Daffner says. “The organization is almost entirely volunteer … and yet they keep coming back. I've had situations where two or three people want to be the stage manager. … They have as much fun doing the show as the cast.”

Many performers and musicians have been with the group for decades. Others leave, then return later.

Russo first learned of the Savoyards when his mother auditioned for a show while he was in high school. He ended up getting cast in the 1973 production of “Patience” and continued with the group while he was in college. He returned in '98 as the music director and conductor.

Ray Very attributes the group's staying power to the passion of the group and the quality of its music.

Very, now a Forest Hills-based professional opera singer who performs internationally, began his career as an amateur performing with the Savoyards between 1985 and 1992.

“The Savoyards personality is unique,” Very says. “You grow to love it. You get involved, because the music is so good and the stories are funny. You get to meet people with different careers because they are passionate about it.”

For some, it's also a family affair. Very recalls taking his daughter Kaitlin to rehearsals with him when she was 2 or 3 years old. Now a college graduate with a degree in music from Northwestern University, Kaitlin Very sang the role of Princess Zara in the recent production of “Utopia, Limited.”

Locally, she has sung with Pittsburgh Opera and Undercroft Opera and hopes to pursue a professional career in the future. But performing with the Pittsburgh Savoyards is special. In part, it's because she can get cast in larger roles.

“It's the community. It is a family,” she says. “The Savoyards are people who are there because they have a passion for what they are doing — opera in general and Gilbert and Sullivan in particular.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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