The Pirates of Penzance
nytheatre.com review by Pamela Butler
March 8, 2007
I imagine there are any number of us who would otherwise not go out in this most brutal of weather, but for duty, though we may call it something else—commitment, responsibility, maintaining the social fabric. Nevertheless, out we venture, lest shirking duty plague us. This was on my mind as I headed over to the New York State Theater to see the New York City Opera's new production of The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty. If you are not familiar with the work of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, this is an ever-brilliant and refreshing comic opera that shows off the rapier English wit and musical might of two great showmen from the age of Queen Victoria.
If you don't know the plot, the quick story is: a young orphaned boy, Frederic, is in the care of his nurse who is supposed to make sure he is apprenticed to a pilot, but she mishears "pilot" as "pirate" and thus young Frederic is apprenticed to the Pirates of Penzance. Being a slave of duty (because he's British and the Queen is Victoria?), he must see out his indenture. But also being a slave of duty means he will have to kill all these pirates when he is free; they are criminals after all.
We meet him as he turns 21 and is ready to part from the sorry lot. He's never seen another woman but his nurse, Ruth, who wants to marry him, but he suspects Ruth is not the be-all/end-all of maidens and looks forward to his freedom to find out. The Stanley girls (all 20 of them here) appear, and he meets Mabel, his true love, and the pirates as well meet their potential brides. There are, however, a series of hurdles to clear before unions can be made. The girls' father, the Major General, will not allow his daughters to marry pirates. What to do? Much delectable ado before all is happily resolved.
In the thrall of the orchestra's opening overture, light and leisurely under the baton of Gerald Steichen, I've forgotten all about the cold and am quickly engaged by rows of lushly clad young ladies whose bustled behinds float like so many robust flowers in a velvety black field. We're all watching the opening parade of comically graphic signs and symbols passing before us. The set itself is the theatre, with all its elements appearing in various guises. It's all a stage, the world, so it's been said. The production grandly tips a hat to a gallery of British writers of wit and renown, so from the start I am alerted to look for each homage as it appears.
There are numerous opportunities to shine here and the City Opera has put the polish on. The chorus of maidens, pirates and police offer lively support for the leads who each, in turn, give real personality to their colorful characters.
Myrna Paris's nurse Ruth, dominating poor Frederic, made me think immediately of John Tenniel's Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, but she easily becomes an enthusiastic pirate-ess when her fate changes.
Frederic is endearing and loveable as played by Matt Morgan. He has a genuine youthful idealism, and despair as he navigates his particular plight. Marc Kudisch, almost as good-looking as Johnny Depp, is the dashing Pirate King, a good hearted swashbuckler, and his first mate, Samuel, stands out as played by Scott Guinn.
Sarah Jane McMahon is also delightful as Mabel. She has great comic pitch and timing, and during a parry with a flute, she really shows off her vocal ability. But she has other amazing talents which she demonstrates in one hand-over-foot exit. It has to be seen to be appreciated.
Mark Jacoby delivers "I am the Perfect Model of a Modern Major General" with precise articulation and such feverish speed that it alone is worth the ticket, and he doesn't slur a syllable. In his golden robe he looks like a gilded chess piece, another example of the stage whimsy I enjoy so much.
Kevin Burdette, as the Chief of Police, seems to be part charmed snake. Not only does he create a singular and energetic presence, he moves with comic, undulating grace. Lynne Hockney's choreography also keeps the large ensemble looking fluid and light on its feet.
The are many memorable pictures, as well as the familiar tunes, to take away, thanks to the mischievous work of the production's creators. John Conklin's set is fresh and innovative, and Jess Goldstein is responsible for the witty and lush costumes, while Pat Collins's lighting design richly enhances the action. Director Lillian Groag has given us one great entertainment here. I hope there is more G&S to come.