February 21, 2020 at 10:45am
Dane Lisser / Video by Richard Ndembe

A look at Millikin's new imagining of Gilbert and Sullivan's classic operetta

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's classic operetta "The Pirates of Penzance" has been a popular production for generations, and this year, the production has become a part of Millikin University's mainstage season, but with a twist.

The show is a comic opera in two acts and follows the story of Frederic who has turned 21 and has completed his apprenticeship to a band of kindhearted pirates. He falls for Mabel, the lovely daughter of law-enforcer Major-General Stanley, only to learn that his birthday falls on Feb. 29, which means he is technically still a pirate.

The twist, however, in Millikin's production is that the "pirates" are members of a 50s biker-gang and are rebels without a cause.

Pirates of Penzance Millikin

The production features a unique collaboration between Millikin Opera Theatre, the Millikin Chamber Orchestra and Millikin's School of Theatre & Dance. It is directed by Ian Greenlaw, assistant professor of music and director of Millikin Opera Theatre, along with Mary Beth Sederberg, director of Opera Music.

In the Millikin rendition, Frederic escapes and meets a group of sorority girls who are on a field trip along with their archaeology professor. During the attempt to escape, Frederic falls for one of the sorority sisters, but is torn on what to do.

"They are the pirates of the streets," Greenlaw said in an interview with the Herald & Review. "It's a coming of age story for Frederic."


Greenlaw added, "One of the reasons we set the operetta in America in the 1950s is because we wanted to focus on different aspects of society, not just Victorian England which was the original setting, but to see what happens to the biker gang because they don't fit into the norms of society."

The production features a 20-piece student orchestra with a cast of 19, and although the show takes place in America in the 1950s, most elements remain the same.

"There's a reason many people love 'Pirates of Penzance' because it has all the elements of great music, great romance and comedy," Greenlaw said. "It's been a complete joy to work with the students. I'm very honored to have the ability to work with not just the music students from the School of Music, but with all the theatre students from the School of Theatre & Dance who are also musicians. I wanted to bring both schools together because we collaborate all the time."

Pirates of Penzance Millikin

Sederberg says opportunities like "Pirates of Penzance" give students a chance to build and advance their vocal techniques. Throughout the production process, singers have been able to work with actors on spoken dialogue, costuming and makeup.

"The students are taking their craft to the next level," said Sederberg. "We have an awesome orchestra that is a major part of the set. The production is student-centered, student-driven, and it's a display of the talent we have at Millikin."

Pirates of Penzance Millikin

Greenlaw noted, "I'm really proud of the students when I get to work with them during production meetings and talk about student-led lighting design, scenic designs and the sound design. Everyone gets to learn from each other."

Millikin's production of "The Pirates of Penzance" is running Feb. 20-23 at Albert Taylor Theatre in Shilling Hall.

Pirates of Penzance Millikin

Millikin School of Theatre & Dance

The Millikin School of Theatre & Dance produces numerous performances in venues on and off-campus, including musicals, plays, operas, children's theatre and dance concerts, as well as productions through its student-run theatre company, Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre.

Millikin's School of Theatre & Dance is a nationally recognized program, offering conservatory-style training rooted in a liberal arts education. The School of Theatre & Dance's approach to education offers students valuable insight and hands-on experiences that will prepare them for professional success. Nationwide, Millikin's respected theatre alumni are routinely hired for projects in television, film and live theatre, including top Broadway shows.