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Many happy returns – to Mabel, Frederic, the blustery Major-General, and the familiar crew of tender-hearted pirates and nervous policemen. Regular as Halley’s Comet, “The Pirates of Penzance” has circled back for its quadrennial production by the...

'Pirates of Penzance' returns to Bergen County starting Friday, May 13

Many happy returns – to Mabel, Frederic, the blustery Major-General, and the familiar crew of tender-hearted pirates and nervous policemen. Regular as Halley’s Comet, “The Pirates of Penzance” has circled back for its quadrennial production by the...

'Pirates of Penzance' returns to Bergen County starting Friday, May 13

Many happy returns – to Mabel, Frederic, the blustery Major-General, and the familiar crew of tender-hearted pirates and nervous policemen.

Regular as Halley’s Comet, “The Pirates of Penzance” has circled back for its quadrennial production by the Ridgewood Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company.

“Phil, was it six years ago the last time I was the Pirate King?” asked John Holmboe of Pearl River, N.Y., at a recent rehearsal. Holmboe, a member of the group since 1980, has played 29 roles in all 13 operas.

“If that was two productions ago, that would have been in 2008,” replied Philip Sternenberg of Bergenfield, the unofficial historian of the group (he’s been a member since 1976).

For the 19th time since the group of enthusiasts formed 79 years ago, the troupe of 30 actor-singers will tackle the famous comic opera about a not-so-fearsome Pirate King (Matthew Haines of North Arlington doubles with Holmboe in the part) who would never harm an orphan, and his gang of buccaneers who brazenly threaten to marry the local ladies with the aid of “a doctor of divinity who resides in this vicinity.” The production is co-directed by Reegan McKenzie of Rochelle Park (stage) and Paul Geidel of Yonkers N.Y. (music).

“Pirates” is an old favorite with audiences, and with most of these actors. But then, which G&S opera isn’t? “I look forward to doing all of them,” Holmboe says.

The 1879 operetta, which features the oft-parodied patter song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” (a showstopper for Bill Cantor of Woodcliff Lake and Nate Kaufman of Point Pleasant Beach) and the well-known tune “Come Friends Who Plough the Sea” – better known by its alternate lyrics, “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” – was even a Broadway hit in 1981, with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt.

“The idea of doing operetta always appealed to me,” says Allison Macri of Upper Saddle River, who is new to the group. She alternates with Beverly Butrie of New York in the role of the heroine, Mabel. “This is smack-dab in the middle of musical theater and opera.”

What many fans of the 13 comic operas of lyricist William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) most love, apart from their wit and tunefulness, is a certain rigorous logic that Gilbert brought to each one of his silly scenarios. When young Frederic (Joseph Mayon of New York; Dennis Oliveira of Kearny), the reluctant pirate apprentice born on a leap year, learns that his pirate contract will not be up until his 21st birthday, he calculates – correctly – that he will not be free to wed Mabel until 1940. “It seems so long!” she sighs.

Gilbert & Sullivan fans are, often as not, mathematically-minded. Systematic. Perhaps even a tad obsessive-compulsive. Sternenberg cheerfully admits to this.

“I’m a mathematically-inclined person, and Gilbert and Sullivan seems to have an appeal to that kind of person for logical reasons,” says Sternenberg, who plays Samuel The Pirate Lieutenant in this production.

Leave it to him to work out a complex rotational schedule for the Ridgewood Group, to guide it in its two yearly shows.

The Ridgewood Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company, founded in 1937 by the late Kay and Jack Edson, is one of an estimated 200 or more G&S societies in North America that have been keeping the so-called “Savoy” operas (named after London’s Savoy Theater, where most had their premieres in the late 19th century) alive. The group currently has some 40 members, ranging in age from 17 to 92.

Once upon a time, Sternenberg says, the group worked their way through the shows in chronological order: “Trial by Jury” (1875) first, “The Grand Duke” (1896) last. But this didn’t make much sense from a box-office perspective – since the “big three” cash cows, “H.M.S. Pinafore” (1878), “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado” (1885) were always far more of an audience draw than lesser-known pieces like “Utopia Limited” (1893).

It was Sternenberg who invented an elaborate system that might best be likened to an orrery – one of those complicated mechanical models of the solar system, seen in science museums, where each planet revolves around the sun at its correct relative speed. “It’s sort of like three gears intermeshing,” Sternenberg says.

“Pinafore,” “Pirates” and “Mikado” are the inner planets, with the shortest rotational period – once every four years. Further out are the second-tier shows like “Patience” (1881) “Iolanthe” (1882), “Ruddigore” (1887) – popular, but not in the same league – that come around every six or seven years. The least-known (though not necessarily least-good) operas are consigned to deep space, with distant orbits that bring them into Ridgewood only rarely.

“ ‘Utopia’ and ‘Grand Duke’ get done only once every 13 years or so,” Sternenberg says. “We’ve done them both only twice each. We haven’t officially downgraded them to dwarf planets.”

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com

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