SAXTONS RIVER -- The first time anyone approached David Shaw about directing a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, he politely, but firmly, declined.
"I had never done a Gilbert & Sullivan. I sat back and listened to it for about 15 minutes and said, ‘No, that’s not my thing,’" recalled Shaw.
But that was then, and this is now.
Changing interests and changing circumstances -- he recently left his teaching job at Kimball Union Academy to start an interior and exterior design business called Artscapes -- allowed Shaw to pursue again his passion for community theater. This time, when the folks at Main Street Arts asked him if he would direct a Gilbert & Sullivan, he said yes.
And, boy is he glad he did.
Poring over the script and listening to "The Pirates of Penzance" with fresh eyes and ears, Shaw was hooked.
"I said ‘Holy mackerel, this is very compelling,’" he said. "It was so full of political satire, of satire of the human condition in general. It is honestly, I think, very current. ... And the music is really just so brilliant. It moves from playful to emotionally evocative."
Add to that a rollicking band of pirates whose arrrrgh is worse than their bite, a loving gaggle of damsels in distress, a bungling bunch of policeman on the case, a silly love story and a typical topsy-turvy twist at the end that buttons it all up, and you have Gilbert & Sullivan at their best.
For its annual late-winter musical, Main Street Arts will present "The Pirates of Penzance" on Friday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 8, at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 9, at 2 p.m., at Nita Choukas Theater in Horowitz Hall on the Vermont Academy campus in Saxtons River.
This production marks a return to familiar territory in one sense as Main Street Arts comes back to Gilbert & Sullivan after three years of exploring other musicals. But it also represents a foray into unfamiliar territory. With its familiar, cozy performance space closed and Main Street Arts in the midst of a major building project and capital campaign, this production is in a new space and is running for one weekend only instead of two.
That has cast, crew and production staff intensely interested in making sure people come out to see the show and support MSA’s plans to improve its current building and expand onto an adjacent lot at 33 Main St. it bought in 2012.
"It’s important for Main Street. This is a major event in the life of the community. We really need to come out, and we need them to support MSA," said Jack Bryar, who is fortunate to play the role of Major General Stanley. "It’s the goofiest role in town."
In "Pirates of Penzance," that last statement is up for debate. With its cast of pirates, policemen and daughters, there’s plenty of goofy to go around.
"There are so many funny parts that you will not stop laughing," promised Lindsey Soboleski, who plays the leading lady Mabel.
This production of "Pirates" represents a warm and fuzzy homecoming for Soboleski, who grew up appearing in MSA Gilbert & Sullivan productions, starting with "Pirates" when she was about in her early teens. She rose from wide-eyed young chorister to lead roles and then went off to University of Vermont.
Now she’s back home, teaching music at Vermont Academy and once again in "Pirates of Penzance" at MSA. Playing Mabel is OK, but she revealed a secret.
"I’ve always wanted to be a pirate," she said.
And who wouldn’t want to be part of this spirited band of brigands who enjoys their sherry, do a bit of pillaging and plundering, run afoul of the law but somehow come out all right in the end.
Certainly, they inspire Shaw to great expenditures of energy as he herds them through the hilarious last half of the second act during a rehearsal a couple of Sundays ago.
"It really should be as balletic as you can be. Get yourself up on your toes," he urges them.
You’ll have to see it for yourself.
"People asked me ‘Are you going to do it the traditional way?’ And I said ‘Honestly, I don’t know what that is.’" Shaw explained. "I’m reading the text and listening to the music."
One thing he knows, Gilbert & Sullivan had a knack for capturing the humor, the joy, the pain and the sorrows of the human condition.
"It’s real humanity. It’s not high-falutin’. It’s going to hit you where you live -- romance and bawdy play and jealousy and humor," said Shaw.
Plus all that great music.
"I think it’s amazing that Sullivan was able to write that music, and how beautiful he could make it," said Soboleski.
The Main Street Arts cast stars Lindsey Soboleski (Mabel), Libby McCawley (Ruth), Michael Duffin (Frederic), Frank Sibley (Pirate King), Jack Bryar (Major General), Greg Sweeney (Samuel), Lesley Cotter (Edith), Kathleen Bryar (Kate), Annesa Hartman (Isabel), Gary Clay (Police Sergeant), Celine West (Pirate Cook).
Also in the cast are Kelly Dane, Elle Jamieson, Amy Howlett, Emma Ramen, Fred Ramen, Irene Ramen, Gail Haas, Victor Brandt, Mike Mayer, Ira Wilner, Jimmy Malley, David Roberts, Rick Cowan, Steven Griffiths and Dennis Hagan.
Walt Sayre is music director, Gretchen Abendschein is choreographer, and Mary Hepburn is producer.
Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students in advance, $17 for adults and $12 for students at the door.
Tickets are available at Main Street Arts, Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls, Misty Valley Books in Chester, Canal Street Beads or at www.brattleborotix.com.
For more about Main Street Arts and its Moving Forward, Moving Up Capital Campaign, visit mainstreetarts.org.