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People & 'Pirates'
Asbury Memorial Theatre returns with a diverse cast and a favorite show
Novelist and Gilbert & Sullivan buff Jonathan Raab

Author Jonathan Raab has published four works of historical fiction, including Rosa and Shadow and Light. It’s a tough row to hoe, combining real people and events (successfully) with elements of suspense, classic crime noir and the fertile prose of one’s own imagination.

But Raab, who moved to Savannah with his wife and young children in 2008, is a well–reviewed novelist whose work was recently called “brilliantly plotted” by The Washington Post. And Publisher’s Weekly said Shadow and Light was “superb.”

A Fulbright scholar, a noted historian and a restlessly inquisitive guy, Raab studied political science in Germany (where his novels are set). He teaches creative writing at SCAD – and, seasonally, at New York University.

All well and good, but Jonathan Raab has a secret passion.

He’s playing the Major General in a local production of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance, opening this weekend in the newly remodeled Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church sanctuary.

“I used to do a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan up in New York,” Raab explains. “I sang for 15 years with a group called the Blue Hill Troupe – they’ve been around for 80 years or so.

“And I’ve performed G&S with the Harrisburg Symphony and the Albany Symphony, and I did it with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall.”

The Pirates of Penzance is the opening salvo of a new era in theater at Asbury, where Billy Hester, a Savannah native, has been pastor for nearly 20 years. Hester came to the ministry after a career on the New York stage – in fact, as lead tenor for the Light Opera of Manhattan, one of his first–ever shows was The Pirates of Penzance – and he and wife Cheri met when they were both working on Broadway.

The Hesters began the Asbury Memorial Theatre in 1994 (Penzance was the inaugural show), and for a couple of years – until mounting costs forced them to shut it down – it put on two (secular) musicals per year.

Gone, but not forgotten. Doing theater – as well as the good works of a minister – is important to Billy Hester.

Asbury is at 1008 Henry Street, which, Hester points out, is an area known more for crime than creativity. “There’s nothing in the arts over there,” he says. “So we just think theater and music is just a great way for people to be touched, to laugh, to come together.

“We’re a very diverse congregation. Ultimately we’d like to have lectures in the space – bring people together who would not normally get together. This is just the beginning.”

Hester’s Pirates is a “concert” production of Gilbert & Sullivan – although the leads (there are 25 of them) will be in costume, they’ll be singing but not “acting.” There are no sets, no props and no blocking.

“We could probably do a real set there in the sanctuary,” Hester adds. “But if you try to do a ‘little’ something, the audience will think ‘Boy, that’s kind of cheesy.’ So I think you have to be careful of trying to be something you’re not – and focus more on the music, the costumes, and the relationship between the performers and the audience.”

Among the cast, enthusiasm for this show is contagious.

“I love to perform,” confesses WTOC–TV meteorologist Pat Prokop, who’s playing a pirate – “a weather pirate,” with new dialogue – in the Asbury production. “Of course, I’m on TV every day, so I just love to get in front.

“My wife Mary and I both love community theatre,” Prokop says. “We supported Jody Chapin and Jim Holt in City Lights productions, and we also started supporting Asbury Memorial Theatre when we were not even members of that church.”

Every October, Hester does a series called God on Broadway. “Billy has a unique way of merging the play with the sermon and the worship service,” says Prokop. “It’s really incredible.”

Although Ryan McCurdy, like Raab, is not a member of the church, he found Penzance an offer he couldn’t refuse.

McCurdy is particularly jazzed about the concert–style staging. “The best thing, for me, is that you really can focus on sound production,” he says. “So many musicals – and even when you do a full staging of a Gilbert & Sullivan – people are running around the stage, chasing each other, people are upstage or downstage. And all of that snowballs into making it physically very hard to focus on making these really strange pitches come out of your face.”

Raab says rehearsals have been “a blast,” mostly because of Billy Hester and his belief in the project, and in the performers.

“The guy’s just amazing,” Raab says. “Savannah’s very, very lucky to have Billy Hester. He and Cheri are really lovely people.”

Raab loves coming to rehearsal every night. “Everyone involved with it is just excited to be doing it,” he explains.

“And they’re having fun with it. That’s the beauty of Gilbert & Sullivan – if we’re having a ton of fun onstage, you hope that the audience can’t help but jump on with us.”

‘The Pirates of Penzance’

Where: Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church, 1008 E. Henry St.

When: At 8 p.m. March 5, 6, 12 and 13; 3 p.m. March 7 and 14

Tickets: $10

Phone: (912) 233–4351