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Culture Watch: What does it mean, ‘semi-staged’?

“Semi-staged”: What, exactly, does that mean?

No, it doesn’t mean using half a stage, says Lois Duplantier, artistic director of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, with a laugh.

“It means a full musical production, just without sets,” she explains. She’s talking about the upcoming semi-staged production of H.M.S Pinafore, the beloved Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that the LPO will perform at the Mahalia Jackson Theater on Thursday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m., and at First Baptist Church in Covington on Friday, May 13, at 7:30 p.m.

“But this is no ‘flower pot’ production, where the singers are planted in front of the orchestra and just stay there,” she adds. “This will be one where the principal singers, chorus and orchestra fully participate in the whole production.”

Which means that, in a radical move for them, orchestra musicians will trade in their black orchestra uniforms for dark pants, white open-neck shirts and red, white and blue bandanas and, along with a huge chorus, will cheer or shake their fists, among other actions, when it’s required in the performance.

Playing the role of Josephine is local rising-star soprano Sarah Jane McMahon, a graduate of Dominican High School and protégé of Placido Domingo, who has been hailed by Opera News for her “golden sound,” and by the New York Times for her “bright and active” sparkling stage presence.

Under the stage direction of baritone Frederick Reeder, who also will perform the role of Sir Joseph Porter, nine talented singers from across the country will cavort their way through one of the most amusing of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. A spoof on Victorian Britain’s class-consciousness, it remains a favorite of the many New Orleanians who have fond memories of acting and singing their way through high-school G&S productions.

“Fred has a knack for this kind of program and a way of making the audience suspend its disbelief even without sets,” Duplantier says. “And the other great thing about him is he’s hilarious.”

LPO Operations Manager Ron Bermingham, himself an accomplished baritone, is looking forward to this happy and tuneful musical experience, the first of its kind for the orchestra. Working with Lois Robinson, he’s on the search to find appropriate costumes for the principal singers, which range from the traditional British admiral’s cocked hat to Victorian jewelry and high-necked blouses for the female leads.

“Doing a semi-staged production is a great way to do a major work and meet all the characters without having to spend a fortune on sets,” he says. “And while all the principal singers will be costumed, they don’t have to be extravagant.”

But what will make this an over-the-top event, at least to many knowledgeable G&S connoisseurs, is that some aspects of this performance will, in fact, be extravagant, much more so than a traditional fully-staged operetta performance.

“Because instead of just a small pit orchestra, there will be a full symphony on stage,” Bermingham says.

“And a huge chorus of 70 instead of the usual 25,” adds Duplantier.

So for those who love “I’m called Little Buttercup” and When I was a Lad,” and particularly for those who have never (well, hardly ever) heard them, we recommend a trip to Mahalia Jackson Theater on Thursday or First Baptist in Covington on Friday for a jolly good, smashing evening of splendid music, with a few laughs along the way.

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