If, like many Broadway enthusiasts, your only familiarity with Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance
is the 1980 Joseph Papp production, I urge you plant your fannies into one of the comfier seats at City Center this weekend. Oh, nothing against that Wilford Leach-directed mounting, with its souped-up orchestrations, Broadway belting and rowdy, slapstick staging. I had a grand time. But it's also a treat to see this G&S classic produced in a style more in keeping with its operetta roots. It is
an operetta, after all.
The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (a/k/a NYGASP) have been performing a revolving repertory of their namesakes' legendary musical farces for over thirty years, and doing so in a style reminiscent of what we would have seen in the late 19th Century. Some of the conventions utilized by director/conductor/musical director Albert Bergeret may seem a bit old-fashioned to those more accustomed to today's musical comedy fare, but stay with it and you're sure to find yourself in a state of joy and rapture.
As you might have guessed, the plot concerns a band of pirates. But they're not really pirates. Oh, sure... they're pirates, but W.S. Gilbert had this habit of satirizing British upper crust by representing them as more exotic creatures. So instead of swashbuckling about the stage (whatever that means), these pirates are more likely to dance a sprightly minuet. When they abduct innocent young maidens it's because they're looking for a long-term commitment, as exemplified by these lyrics sung when carrying off a bevy of beauties:
Here's a first rate opportunity
To get married with impunity
And indulge in the felicity
Of unbounded domesticity.
We will quickly be parsonified;
By a doctor of divinity
Who is located in this vicinity.
They're also a bit too tender-hearted for their profession, making it a point never to harm an orphan, since they are all parent-less themselves. Unfortunately, word gets around and everyone they try and attack says they're orphans. As the piece begins, Frederick, their young apprentice, is celebrating his 21st birthday, thus ending his indentured servitude to the boys from Penzance. (Penzance, by the way, is a small coastal town near the southwestern tip of Britain.) Although he's an honest lad who deplores piracy, he's also a self-proclaimed slave of duty, and would never think of breaking the contract that bound him to their ship from childhood. But now that his commitment to them has dissolved, he's determined to have them brought to justice. But first, typical of a guy on his 21st birthday, he's looking to score some booty.
Amidst massive amounts of silliness, he falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of a Major-General just around the time when his former mates try to carry away (for the purposes of marriage, of course) her chorusful of sisters. The Major-General manages to trick the pirates into letting them go (three guesses how), but when a loophole is discovered in Frederick's contract, he is once again bound with the would-be cutthroats until a band of bumbling police are called upon to save the day... sorta.
With all the inspired nonsense going on, it's easy to forget about Sir Arthur Sullivan's lovely music, if not for Bergeret's sublime handling of his 25-piece orchestra. And although there is a small amount of amplification, the actors are staged traditionally, with limited movement and continually facing the audience, thus emphasizing attention on the words and music. The production utilizes what Anna Russell used to call "a homogenous chorus" ("I know you're thinking I mean homogeneous", she explained, "but I really mean homogenous -- like milk -- because they're all exactly alike.) which the director uses as a source of humor by occasionally allowing someone to stray a bit from the pack.
The cast is composed of NYGASP regulars, with one ringer -- guest star Hal Linden as the Major-General. Though he comes with an impressive list of Broadway and Off-Broadway musical credits (including a Best Actor Tony for The Rothschilds), here Linden is making his Gilbert and Sullivan debut in a role most famous for it's tricky patter song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General". At 73 years of age he doesn't exactly play the number for its intended lightning speed, but he's still a charmer with a strong singing voice and a rascally sense of humor. Andrew MacPhail plays Frederick with an humorously All-American (All-English?) earnestness (though a bit weak on the top tenor notes), Laurelyn Watson features a powerful soprano as Mabel and as the Pirate King, Ross David Crutchlow is a blast, a bit suggestive of Sir Noel Coward doing an Errol Flynn impersonation. Supporting character roles are handled nicely by Angela Smith, as the maternal nurse-maid Ruth, and Keith Jurosko as the cowardly police sergeant.
Gilbert often encouraged anachronistic references to be added to his librettos, and this production features a bit of modern-day politics as well as a salute to Michael Bennett. But simply as is, this 1879 tuner, especially in the hands of NYGASP, has got enough solid laughs and catchy melodies to warrant a bounty of performances for another 125 years. So you young theatre-goers out there be sure to remind your great-grandchildren to get tickets for their 250th Anniversary production in 2130. The guest star won't be born for another 55 years or so, but I bet he'll be great.
Photos by Michael Nemeth; Top: Hal Linden, Bottom: (clockwise from bottom) Laurelyn Watson, Andrew MacPhail, Ross David Crutchlow, Keith Jurosko and Hal Linden