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Westmont Invited to Perform ‘Pirates of Penzance’ at Prestigious College Theater Festival

The students and faculty of Westmont College’s Theatre Arts Department have a new success to boast about: their invitation to the Kennedy Center’s regional American College Theater Festival.

Their production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance was submitted by director John Blondell as a participating production for the Kennedy Center’s regional festival, which is taking place through Saturday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

During the show’s original run at Westmont’s Porter Theater in October, two respondents from the festival were in the audience. One respondent consulted with the cast after the show to give feedback, while the other remained unidentified to take in the show from the perspective of a nondescript audience member.

Amid the chaos of Westmont’s final exam week in December, the results of the festival selection were revealed.

Pirates was chosen to perform at the festival along with seven other college productions out of a pool of 50 participating productions.

Success at the regional festival could result in an invitation to perform at the Kennedy Center’s national theater festival.

Westmont students Connor Bush, Ben Offringa and Paige Tautz also have been selected to compete in the Irene Ryan Acting Competition for regional scholarships and individual invitations to the national festival.

Director John Blondell is chair of the Westmont Theatre Arts Department and co-founder of Santa Barbara’s Lit Moon Theater Company.

“I’m kind of a festival guy,” Blondell said.

He is a cofounder of the Lit Moon World Theatre Festival and the founder of the Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival, which happens to be the only international Shakespeare festival held in the United States.

In 2006, Lit Moon players and Westmont students were invited to an international Shakespeare festival in Poland.

Explaining his affinity for festival theater, Blondell claims that a festival is an “honoring of the identity of the people who are participating in it, which includes all the performers, the playwrights, and also the audience. The festival is a site of great excitement, enthusiasm, and verve, where like-minded people get to talk about their work and share with one another.”

Blondell expects the Los Angeles festival to provide his students with “lots of elbow rubbing,” through opportunities to observe other theater programs and a variety of artists at work.

The invitation to perform has reunited the cast of talented students, plunging them back into the rehearsal process to refine and embellish the already masterful production.

Although bringing back a show presents challenges, Blondell and the students express enthusiasm and gratitude at the opportunity.

“I really like coming back to shows,” Blondell said. “Especially shows that I feel are very special.”

Senior Mak Manson, who plays the Pirate King, reports that the rehearsals are going very well despite his own initial worries about reprising a role from the past, which he and many of the other students have never done.

“It feels like Mabel never left,” said cast member Megan Silberstein , who is also pleased to return to a character for which she developed fond feelings.

Silberstein plays the role of Mabel, a Victorian-era daughter of a major-general and beau of reluctant pirate apprentice, Frederic.

She is a senior music major hoping to attend conservatory after graduation. Silberstein describes the production as the highlight of her four years at Westmont.

She agrees that returning to the rehearsal process after having already pulled off a string of solid performances has offered the cast opportunities to grow as artists.

After the initial production ended, Silberstein reports waking up at night “thinking of a new way to interpret a line or a novel way to react. It is wonderful to get more time to follow those instincts and see how it affects the entire thread of my character in the whole of the plot.”

Though Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic premiered in 1879, Blondell’s cast has approached the period piece with a fresh pair of eyes.

Incorporating a mixture of historical and contemporary costumes and set pieces, (the vision of costume designer Miller James and visiting scenographer Danila Korogodsky), the production features a visual motif of vivid red.

It’s customary for performers of Gilbert and Sullivan to infuse their characters with a strong dose of melodrama, but Blondell and his cast chose to play the characters as relatable and human.

“This serious approach takes the story to a level of depth that is both more dramatically interesting and makes the comedy that much more comedic,” Silberstein said.

Though the cast had remained uncertain after the production about whether they would be reprising their roles in L.A. in February, Blondell and the cast made plans to perform the show again.

“If we weren’t invited, I didn’t want the show to just go away," he explains. "We scheduled [the encore performance] first.”

The performances will take place at 7 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23 in Westmont’s Porter Theater.

It will be open to the general public, with $15 tickets for general admission and $10 admission for students, seniors and Westmont faculty. There also are $25 benefit tickets, which will entitle the ticket holder to attend a dessert reception with the cast after the show, and will help defray the costs of bringing the cast to L.A.

Noozhawk intern Megan Monroe can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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