Susan Wiedmeyer on Gilbert and Sullivan's topsy-turvy pirate tale, which opens Friday, May 20.
There are many grizzled veterans in the D’Oyly Carte world of Gilbert and Sullivan: singer-comedians who have spent careers in the kingdoms of Nanki-Poo and Barataria. Or have heaved-several-hos aboard the HMS Pinafore or in the Pirate King’s merry band. Susan Wiedmeyer isn’t one of them.
She did make her professional singing debut in The Pirates of Penzance seven years ago. And she’s back on the Skylight Theatre’s stage for the final production of its 2015-16 season–this time in one of the lead roles. But Wiedmeyer’s stage career extends far beyond the shenanigans of Victorian comic operetta.
Wiedmeyer was still working toward her Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance at UWM in 2009 when she landed a part in the Skylight’s Pirates chorus. She was introduced to G&S during her undergraduate years at St. Olaf College, and was thrilled when it was my first professional show.
“I remember that I was doing a bit too much at that time,” she told me by telephone on Wednesday morning, after the show’s first dress rehearsal with the orchestra. “I remember being so taken with the production that I ended up writing my big papers in school on Gilbert & Sullivan.”
Since then, she’s become fixture on Milwaukee’s musical theater stages, singing roles with Milwaukee Opera Theatre and the Skylight that range from The Wizard of Oz’s sweetly lyrical Dorothy to Les Miserables’s tender-hearted Cosette to Candide’s pyrotechnic Cunégonde, who sings one of the most challenging songs in all musical theater (“Glitter and Be Gay”).
Along the way, she’s made another stop last year in the comic world of Gilbert and Sullivan, singing Yum-Yum in MOT’s irreverent do-it-yourself version of The Mikado. And she’s glad to be back.
“It is fun to sing,” she says. “There’s something about Pirates. It’s frothy and bouncy. I don’t know how else to describe it. Hearing the music makes you feel good. Singing it makes you feel good. And when you get to dance and sing to it–it’s like over the top.”
In this Pirates, the dancing happens in heavy Victorian dresses—“I’m building up my stamina,” she says. But the production’s traditional approach ends there.
Unlike the 2009 Pirates, director Shawna Lucey has a decidedly women-centered take on the story.
“What I enjoy about this production,” explains Wiedmeyer, “is that the women are not just along for the ride. They’re really taking charge and leading the story. Instead of the pirates chasing the women, the women are chasing the pirates.”
After her experience and study of Pirates, this version of Pirates took some getting used to. “I had to let go of all preconceived ideas of what Edith would be like,” Wiedmeyer says. “Since I had an idea of who she is in my mind already, I tried to be a blank slate when I walked into rehearsal. I was just amazed by Lucey’s take on it. We haven’t changed a word in the show. But she changes the intention behind the lines and behind the lyrics.”
Call it a topsy-turvy version of an already topsy-turvy world. But for Wiedmeyer, “It works.”
The Pirates of Penzance opens Friday, May 20, at the Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center.