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Theater Review (NYC): The Pirates of Penzance at New York City Center

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Much has changed in New York City since the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players last presented their G & S Fest. When we last saw that "very model of a modern major general" in June 2008, Lehman Brothers still had their cufflinks tidily on their wrists. New York audiences, much like William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's Victorian audiences, sat in a time of prosperity. Now, there are few calm and collected models of a modern CEO. After an "unwanted but necessary" hiatus, as described by artistic director Albert Bergeret, the broad comedies and gentle satires of Gilbert & Sullivan return to New York City Center to audiences now in need of a good laugh so much more than that 2008 audience.


Gilbert and Sullivan wrote their comic operas during the great Pax Britannica, a long period of peace and prosperity in Victorian England – a time of peace if you consider peace being a colonial power from sea to shining sea and waging war with everyone to stay that way. Librettist Gilbert's benign satire was a product of a long ago flourishing economy. Then there were no broad targets for satire. Today, despite the pirates who lurk in hedge funds and off the coast of Somalia, audiences laugh with impunity at cowardly constables and birthdays that fall on leap days.

The famous story is a slight one. A young pirate with a slavish devotion to duty fulfills his years of service to the Pirate King, or thinks he has. He leaves his nursemaid and pirate kin, and falls in love with the daughter of a military commander, the natural enemy to his old boss. How can this all be reconciled except with song and dance and pun?

Despite an unfortunate wig here and there, and a couple of the four and twenty daughters of the major general who look to be closer in age to 47-year-old nursemaid Ruth than love interest Mabel, The Pirates of Penzance has returned with joy and rapture to City Center. 

The set is serviceable – rocks and flowers on the picturesque spot where the Major General's many daughters alight on the peaceful shores of Penzance. Perhaps the set is plain because the scenery has already been chewed to bits. As it should be.

Tenor Colm Fitzmaurice, an outstanding member of the Gilbert & Sullivan Players, is a strong Frederic in a role that often is railroaded by Mable, who is overly sentimental in love and song, on one side, and the charismatic Pirate King on the other. For those who remember Rex Smith in the film adaptation of Joe Papp's and the Public Theatre's Pirates of Penzance from the 1980s…you don't? All eyes were on Kevin Kline as The Pirate King at all times. Mr. Smith didn't have a chance. Thankfully, this doesn't happen here. Mr. Fitzmauirce holds his own, although bass-baritone David Wannen, who reprises his 2008 Pirate King, is as charming as any in that long line of Pirate Kings – which incidentally includes Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow proving that pirates are timeless and universal. Silly pirates even more so.

Nurse Ruth, who would like to hang on to her ward in matters non-maternal, is pleasantly played by Angela Smith who enunciates her words so clearly that the consonants spill out onto the first few rows of the theatre. It was her character's elocutionary misunderstanding that led to the young Frederic ending up as an apprentice to a pirate rather than a pilot. It is a lovely little joke that Ruth's hyper-elocution is a reaction to a past misdeed.

Michele McConnell, another long time member of the Players, is an appealing Mabel. Her duet with Mr. Fitzmaurice in "Stay, Frederic, Stay" rises above the comic gags into a genuinely affecting performance. The two move beyond silliness to real emotion where even words fail them, and Gilbert's lines are reduced to "fa-la-la" for good reason.

Other notable performances are those of Stephen Quint as Major-General Stanley. His infamous "I am the Very Model…." trips so fantastically on his tongue that he verbally and intentionally darts ahead of the orchestra to the great delight of the audience. The Sergeant of Police, David Auxier, uses his long, lean frame to great farcical advantage as the coward put in charge of ridding the general of the pesky pirates. Louis Dall'Ava is his deputy in slapstick. Betina Hershey enthusiastically uses her ballet training to make Isabel the most amusingly, overly dramatic sister in a overly dramatic family.

The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players has been a labor of love and a suitably easy laugh since 1976 for artistic director Albert Bergeret. Devoted fans of Gilbert and Sullivan are most appreciative. This year, the Gilbert & Sullivan Fest 2010 is presenting the three most popular Gilbert and Sullivan comedies in rotation: H.M.S. Pinafore, Pirates, and The Mikado. Also this year, they present a less-known opera, Ruddigore, with scenery styled after the late, great Edward Gorey with full consent of the Gorey estate. The productions are accompanied by a 25-piece orchestra, an entity more and more uncommon.

The Pirates of Penzance survived mixed reviews upon its first production, and it is surviving the current economic crisis. Judging by the children's laughter at Saturday's matinee, this musical comedy will be around for another century.

The Pirates of Penzance will be in rotation through January 16th.

Second photo: David Wannen in The Pirates of Penzance
(© Carol Rosegg)

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About Kate Shea Kennon