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A ‘Modern Major’ Musician

Dennis Arrowsmith brings new life to familiar characters.

Dennis Arrowsmith (Photo by Fil Nenna)

If Houston became a stage show, Dennis Arrowsmith would be one of its most memorable characters. The multi-company staple will grace the Hobby Center stage this month for Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston’s The Pirates of Penzance.

This marks his third time in a Pirates production, and his first time in the role of Major-General Stanley. He’s previously played the pirate king and the police sergeant.

“I’m very familiar with the show, but [for this role] I added a new highlighter color to my script. Now my script has yellow, green, and pink,” Arrowsmith  notes. “The Major-General is one of the most famous Gilbert & Sullivan characters out there. His patter song (‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General’) is certainly one of the most famous songs they’ve ever written.”

Last performed by the local Gilbert & Sullivan Society in 2015, this year’s production includes a new set and creative team. Opera and film professional Nicole Kenley-Miller has joined as stage director, and Opera in the Heights general director Eiki Isomura is the music director. Together, their vision will offer a unique take on the popular operetta.

“It’s sort of a new chapter for the Society, which I’ve been a part of since 2005,” Arrowsmith recalls. “I’ve done 11 productions, so I consider myself a veteran of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society. There are people that have been in it for much longer, so I’m certainly not the eldest. But I’ve been around for a while.”

Founded in 1952, the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston is a nonprofit theater company dedicated to preserving and sharing the delightful legacy of Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic operas, which were a precursor to American Broadway musicals. They were wildly popular in the US in the late 19th century, and they have continued to delight large audiences ever since.

The Pirates of Penzance, one of the duo’s most successful musicals, revolves around Frederic, who was mistakenly apprenticed to a band of tender-hearted pirates. Hoping to be released from his apprenticeship on his 21st birthday, Frederic soon realizes that his February 29 birthday means he must serve for decades to come.

Meanwhile, Frederic meets the daughters of Major-General Stanley, including Mabel, and the two fall instantly in love. Young Mabel agrees to faithfully wait for him, but several questions loom: Will she really wait? What becomes of Frederic? Are the pirates as tender-hearted as they claim?

Dennis Arrowsmith (Pirate king), Sarah Lee (Ruth) (Photo by Steve Feinberg)

The show premiered in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1879 to both audience and critical approval, and a London debut followed in 1880. Today’s audiences likely remember the 1983 film adaptation starring Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury, and Linda Ronstadt. Arrowsmith notes that Pirates is one of the easiest entry points into the Gilbert & Sullivan catalog. The plot is easy to follow and presented in English, which is a departure from some of their other works.

Arrowsmith just marked his 20th year with Houston Grand Opera, where he is a baritone in the chorus. His love of performing was sparked at an early age. “I was in my first musical in 8th grade, when I was cast as Jack in Into the Woods,” he remembers. “It set me on my course of really loving musicals. All through high school, I did musical theater. Then, when I went to Rice University in the fall of 1999, I started learning about opera and classical music. Right out of college, I started working for the opera.”

In addition to performing with the chorus, Arrowsmith has also managed Houston Grand Opera’s Opera to Go! touring program at local schools, which included more than 250 mini-performances per year.

Now, he works for HITS Theatre as its education and engagement manager. Based in the Heights, HITS offers educational theater classes in acting, singing, dancing, and production to area youth. Arrowsmith focuses primarily on kindergarten through 6th grade, and he is currently directing the company’s production of Finding Nemo, Jr.

Arrowsmith’s love for involving youth in the performing arts led him to pen The Armadillo’s Dream, a storybook about an armadillo named Sandy who lives in a Houston bayou and dreams of singing. Though discouraged by the creatures he meets, Sandy is magically transformed during a storm and his shell becomes a part of a Houston Grand Opera production.

“One of the great things, but also one of the sad things, about the performing arts is that it’s fleeting. You work for months on a show, and then you perform it,” he muses. “In the opera, we perform maybe five or six times and then it’s gone. Live theater doesn’t last, but that’s also what makes it exciting. The idea that I have something that will last is fulfilling,” he concludes. “I was very honored that I got to write The Armadillo’s Dream. That’s one of my proudest achievements.”

WHAT: Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston’s The Pirates of Penzance
WHEN: July 22 and 29 at 7 p.m., July 23 and 30 at 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby
Ticket prices range from $39 to $84, plus handling fees.

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Sam Byrd

Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to Outsmart who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture. Speaking of Houston, he's never heard a Whitney Houston song he didn't like.
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