By Susan Froyd
By Byron Graham
By Robin Edwards
By Bree Davies
By Josiah M. Hesse
By Bree Davies
By Susan Froyd
By Kate Gibbons
Along with The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance is probably one of the silliest, happiest and best of Gilbert and Sullivan's brilliant oeuvre, full of nonsense and punning, spilling over with gorgeous music.
The storyconcerns a young man named Frederic, who, having been mistakenly apprenticed to a band of pirates at a young age, has just reached majority and is determined to leave the high seas for a life of respectability. He loves his erstwhile pirate comrades dearly, he assures them, but will from now on devote his life to hunting them down and killing them.
Frederic lands on shore with his former nursemaid, Ruth, who is determined to marry him. Because he's never seen another woman -- and is entirely guided by his sense of duty -- Frederic's half willing to go along with this. But then he spies a group of young girls tripping onto the beach for a picnic, rejects Ruth, sings passionately of his longing to marry even the homeliest and worst-complexioned of the newcomers, and snares the beautiful Mabel.
The pirates suddenly descend upon Mabel and her sisters; the girls' father, a major-general, arrives to protect them. He begins by singing one of the most amazing and tongue-tying patter songs ever devised -- "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" -- and then hurls himself at the pirates' mercy on the grounds that he's an orphan. They spare him.
But why go on? You get the idea. Pirates of Penzance provides one zany and irresistible moment after another: The Pirate King sings a lusty song about the relative honesty of his profession compared with most jobs on dry land; a group of tumblingly inept policemen bemoan the difficulties of imprisoning felons who, when not actually hurting people, are as capable of innocent joy as anyone else. (Apparently, Gilbert and Sullivan's police force was the inspiration for the Keystone Kops.) Later, in fiercely martial song, the women urge these inept officers into battle against the pirates, promising to water the graves of the fallen with their tears. But the officers quiver in terror and beg the women to soften their tone. And Ruth and the Pirate King sing merrily to Frederic of the paradox that will trap him into many more years of servitude. It's the kind of quintessential English silliness that's been reprised in the work of Monty Python.
There's not one dud in the roster of songs. The thing that amazes me about Gilbert and Sullivan is the way they marry the most absurd circumstances and lyrics with the loveliest of melodies. Take the scene in which Frederic rejects Ruth, obviously intended to be played for broad comedy. Yet his "Oh, false one, you have deceived me," is full of fire and conviction, and her contrapuntal response ("My love, unabating, has been accumulating...") is sweetly haunting. Troubled by the lie he has told the pirates and tottering around in a ridiculous nightgown, the Major-General sings a delicately pretty pastoral air about the wind in the trees.
There are some wonderful performances in the CU Opera's production. Ben Saypol is a handsome Frederic, and he has a very pleasing voice. He's able to figure out just when to be funny and when to give his songs their serious due, pitching his performance perfectly between farce and romance. Tall, sexy (when he's not impaling himself on his rapier), and enjoying his role so unabashedly that you start smiling the moment he enters, John Hubert is a wonder as the Pirate King. It's impossible to mind when he occasionally goes a little overboard. Gina Razon brings clarity to the role of Ruth, and her warm, rich singing voice makes the comic duet with Frederic one of the evening's high points. Brian Scott Finlay acquits himself honorably as the Major-General, and John David Cleveland has the perfect face and deportment for the Sergeant of Police. Erin Hauger pulls off the fiendishly difficult "Poor Wandering One!," but the going sometimes seems effortful rather than flowing.
The set of Pirates is crowded and pedestrian, and director Christopher McKim has chosen to cram the evening with jokey bits of business. Sometimes these work well, as when the Major-General breaks into an odd little caper, the police stumble helplessly in circles or the pirates thunder onto the stage like a herd of wild horses while singing (loudly) about their own "catlike tread." But at other moments, the business distracts. If one fall, leap or stumble is funny, that doesn't mean three are even funnier. I don't want to see Mabel pouting and mugging during the beautiful parting duet with Frederic, nor should her sisters be distractingly skipping rope while she sings "Poor Wandering One!" This is a youthful approach that, while it may bring some freshness to Gilbert and Sullivan's hoary masterpiece, also serves to blur its contours.
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