The Pirates of Penzance
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
January 9, 2005
It is a rare entertainment that is both suitable and stimulating to “audiences of all ages.” But the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players are offering just that with their smartly silly revival of The Pirates of Penzance (currently running at City Center).
Perhaps a more accurate description of the breadth of appeal might be "fun for all audiences, whatever their level of attention and investment.” This delightful combination of expert players with exceptional material makes for an evening (or a matinee) where one can sit back and be entertained by the inspired buffoonery or lean forward and admire the art of Gilbert’s acuminous lyrics adroitly apace with Sullivan’s swift and sly melodies.
The story, independent of staging, is easy to follow: mistakenly indentured to a band of pirates when he was very small (his nursemaid misheard the word “pilots”), Frederic has, out of a sense of duty that trumps his feelings of disdain for this profession, fulfilled his obligation and on this, his 21st birthday, he’s finally a free man. Despite dearly loving his comrades as individuals, he announces his intention to participate in the eradication of piracy. Shortly after parting ways, Frederic encounters a gaggle of girls, all wards of Major-General Stanley, and falls in love with one of them, Mabel, tout de suite. All of a sudden, they are overtaken by Frederic’s former colleagues, who threaten to marry each of the girls (the ladies do protest not much). Just then, the Major-General arrives and in order to extricate his wards from the pirates, he tells them he is an orphan—the notoriously sentimental Pirates of Penzance are widely-known to be pushovers where such sensitive matters are concerned, and the girls are released immediately.
Time passes. The Major-General deeply regrets his deception, and in order to buoy the spirits of his soon-to-be father-in-law, Frederic organizes a group of police to defeat the pirates. On the eve of the attack, the Pirate King and Ruth (his former nursemaid and now a pirate herself) stealthily pull aside their former crony to let him know that since his birthday is February 29th (which occurs, of course, only during a leap year), Frederic has technically only had five birthdays and is in fact still indentured to them for another sixteen. Distressed but dutiful, he warns the pirates of the attack, bids Mabel goodbye (though they pledge to be true to each other for the next several decades), and goes to fight with his band. The cowardly police are easily disarmed, but the Major-General requests them to yield in “Queen Victoria’s name,” which they do. This reveals them to be “noblemen who have gone wrong,” earning them the Major-General’s pardon and his wards for marriage.
There is much to enjoy in this droll staging, but there are a few overarching commendations to be made. Artistic Director Albert Bergeret has done an all around terrific job both as the stage director and music director / conductor. The comic style—broadly specific (or specifically broad, however you like it)— is goofy, but disciplined. He and his cast clearly share a similar sensibility, resulting in a contagious playfulness that the audience quickly catches.
Hal Linden receives star billing as the doddering Major-General Stanley and deservedly so. His performance of the classic “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” is truly worthy of the phrase “a comic tour de force.” As the Pirate King, Ross David Crutchlow earns the right to be a show-off and his restraint at opportunities for indulgence is admirable. Also noteworthy are Andrew MacPhail and Laurelyn Watson as Frederic and Mabel, respectively, and Louis Dall’ava, as the cop who seriously cannot retain the choreography.
Whether you seek fun that is mindless, good and clean, or witty and erudite, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players have a deeply satisfying entertainment for you in their production of The Pirates of Penzance.