By Philippa Kiraly
For all of us Gilbert & Sullivan fans, it’s time to get ready to enjoy the annual offering of comic opera by Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Like the happy arrival of June strawberries each year, this regular dose of absurd plots, witty words, and irresistible music is worth celebrating.
This year, it’s one of the prime favorites, “H. M. S. Pinafore.” While I would dearly love to see more of the less well known ones, this particular gem helps to fill the coffers, and it is being paired with a rare performance of the curtain-raiser, “Cox and Box,” where an enterprising landlord rents a room twice over to two men who work opposite shifts, and thus never meet, until…
Like all of G & S’s works, “Pinafore” is full of penetrating social observation, this time of the absurdities of class strata, and as always, it will include the topical allusions which are slyly added in every production worth its salt—though you have to listen carefully or they will pass you by in a flash.
Seattle G & S is a top-notch amateur performing group which has been around since 1954. As long time performer William J. Darkow describes it, “It’s not so professional we don’t have fun, and not so amateur our quality suffers.”
Darkow should know. A baritone, he discovered Gilbert & Sullivan in his late teens, from a cassette of “The Pirates of Penzance” that his sister gave him.
He was already into musical theater, and looking back he says of the time, “I heard this and thought, this is uniquely suited to my voice and my sense of humor.” This was 1980 in Olympia and as luck would have it, that year he found an Olympia group planning to perform “Pirates.” He auditioned and, still a teen, was cast in a solo role.
“Whenever a principal baritone couldn’t perform, I immediately jumped in. I had all the parts in my head, ready to go,” he says.
Darkow has never looked back. He came up to Seattle in 1990, because by then he felt he had done about all he could theatrically in Olympia. Until the early 2000s he sold computer equipment and hard- or software for a couple of companies, but then succumbed to his love of theatricality and joined “Market Magic and Novelty” in the Pike Place Market, his full time job combined with gigs as a magician for hire. In his spare time he plays poker, “not for a lot of money—we play for points and prestige and to improve our game.”
Darkow joined Seattle G & S shortly after getting here, and over his career has sung in all 12 of the comic operas with it and with various other area companies. For two of them, “Pinafore” and “The Mikado,” he will by July have performed every one of the solo baritone roles. For the first time, he’ll sing Captain Corcoran in this “Pinafore.”
Darkow credits Seattle G & S with being his training ground as a performer. He has only had a few private singing lessons. “When you’re surrounded by so many talented people you either bring your game up or you languish in the chorus—if you get in the chorus.”
He says the company has opened many doors for him. He can’t imagine he would have traveled to England had the company not gone there to compete there in 1996 in the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, and carried off all the top awards. It competed again in 1999. Darkow went to every performance by every company every night of the festival, mostly English but some American as well.
“I’ve discovered so much musically, and it’s opened my eyes to opportunities for performance in operetta. Even a couple of my long term relationships (Darkow is a confirmed bachelor) have come about as a direct result of singing in musicals.”
He is not the longest running member of the company. Producer Mike Storey, patter song baritone Dave Ross (of KIRO-FM wearing his other hat), Wes Aman and Gerry Webberly, and set designer and sometime performer Nathan Rodda have been there as long and some of them longer than Darkow has. It’s a given that once you have become hooked by the comic operas and sucked into the big family that is Seattle G & S, you remain for life, in a mixture of camaraderie, great fun and very hard work.
“H. M. S. Pinafore.” 13 performances, July 9-11, 15-18, and 22-24 at the Bagley Wright Theatre, including five family nights, three Saturday matinees and two Sunday matinees.
(Family Nights offer reduced ticket prices and feature a question and answer session with the actors and a back stage tour after the show). Tickets $35, $12 for those under 25, discounts on family nights. 206-341-9612, or pattersong.org.