Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Pirates of Penzance

When Joseph Papp mounted a modernized “Pirates of Penzance” in Central Park in New York in 1980, to commemorate the centenary of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta (the only one of the G&S operettas to premiere in New York), there was, to put it mildly, mixed reaction.  The “Papp Pirates,” as it came to be known, featured Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline.  It became the toast of Broadway that year, and won the Tony for best revival.  Suddenly everyone was talking about Gilbert & Sullivan again and the production moved to the screen, in the movie which was made in 1982.

However, there was lots of grumbling among Gilbert & Sullivan purists who objected to the new synthesizer-based orchestrations, interpolated lyrics, and liberties with dialogue.  Still, there is no denying that Papp breathed new life into the Gilbert & Sullivan chestnut and introduced a whole new audience not only to that specific work, but to the whole G&S canon.

I like to think Gilbert & Sullivan themselves might have approved.  After all, they wrote for a contemporary audience and their jokes were pertinent to the period.  Papp just brought the 1879 operetta up to date.

Judging by the standing ovation following Tuesday night’s opening of “Pirates of Penzance” at Music Circus, directed by Glenn Casale, Papp’s version is still finding enthusiastic audiences 20 years later.

This production is full of energy and moves at a frenetic pace.  From the opening sounds of thunder to the lusty chorus of pirates pouring the pirate sherry, it is obvious that this is not your grandmother’s Gilbert & Sullivan.

Frederick (David Burnham) has turned 21 and at his birthday celebration, he informs his pirate brothers that now that he is out of his indentures, he plans to give up the piratical life and devote himself to the extermination of those with whom he lived for the past 13 years.

Burnham’s Frederick has rock star quality.  He gets as much as he can out of his sex appeal.  When he later sings “Oh is there not one maiden here?” to the young girls he has surprised frolicking on the beach, the song comes complete with pelvic thrusts that leave the girls limp and fanning themselves frantically.

Music Circus veteran Paul Schoeffler is the swashbuckling Pirate King, who is at the same time a commanding presence and a bumbler, constantly nicking himself on his sword and stumbling over words.  Schoeffler gives a memorable performance.

Frederick’s nursemaid, Ruth, who misunderstood her instructions and apprenticed the young boy to a pirate instead of to a pilot, is capably played by Mary Gutzi.  The role gives her an opportunity to display both her vocal and comedic talents more fully than she was able to as the Wicked Witch in this season’s earlier “Wizard of Oz.”

Kimilee Bryant is Mabel, the girl who gives Frederick her heart.  Bryant has extensive Gilbert & Sullivan experience with the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players under her belt and she is the quintessential G&S heroine.

Major-General Stanley, father of Mabel and her many sisters, is played by Patrick Quinn.  Quinn cuts a fine figure as the Major General, and does well with the rapid-fire patter songs, but did stumble over many lyrics opening night, as well as leaving out a somewhat important line of dialog.  However, I suspect only G&S purists would notice.

Roger Preston Smith is the Police Sergeant, the head of a Keystone Cops-esque group who are too frightened to go out and fight real pirates.  The police are usually great crowd pleasers and while this crew got its applause, there was something about Mark Esposito’s choreography for the police which left something lacking.

In the smaller roles of Mabel’s sisters, Edith, Kate and Isabel, Christy Morton, Shannon Warne and Rachel Eve Moses were each unique characters and delightful to watch.  Kate’s solo bit in “Climbing over rocky mountains” was sung as practically a sultry torch number, quite a change of pace and very effective.

Papp added two songs to his version of “Pirates of Penzance,” the matter trio from “Ruddygore” (a patter song for Frederick, Ruth and the Pirate King), with slightly rewritten lyrics, which was beautifully enunciated by all, and a segment of Josephine’s aria, “Sorry her lot,” from “HMS Pinafore,” which had originally been added to give Linda Ronstadt something else to sing.  It fits so perfectly where it is situated in the story, following Frederick’s confession that he must leave Mabel and return to his pirate band, that, again, only a G&S purist would notice the insertion.

The Music Circus production is great fun and, as Joseph Papp intended, a great way to introduce a whole new generation to the music of Gilbert & Sullivan.

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