The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP) affirmed their artistic and comic mastery of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon with a terrific production of The Pirates of Penzance Dec. 27-30 at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse. There were standout voices and especially vivid numbers, perfectly comedic costumes and musical hijinks. But fundamentally it was Albert Bergeret’s glorious staging that made this Pirates a joy from start to finish.
There’s no need to recap in detail the absurd story of this ever-popular comic operetta. Apprenticed accidentally to a band of soft-hearted pirates and their maid-of-all-work Ruth, young Frederic finds his plan to leave the brigand’s life behind him thwarted by the revelation that his leap-day birthday means technically he’s not 21 but only five. Cowardly cops, not-so-maidenly maidens, and a foppish Major-General round out this spirited melée of a tale.
The prismatic production started strong with a confidently played Overture under Bergeret’s sure-handed direction. Angela Christine Smith as Ruth delivered buttery-toned exposition (“When Frederic Was a Little Lad”) and broad comedy. Matthew Wages as the Pirate King impressed with his powerful presence and steely baritone. David Macaluso as his second-in-command Samuel threatened to one-up the whole pirate gang with superb comic timing and a fabulous voice.
Not to be outdone, the “girls” brought colorful glamour with “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain” led by strong performances by Emily Wright and Abigail Benke, with Merrill Grant doing hilarious flouncy-flirtatious duty throughout.
Sarah Caldwell Smith was a stirring Mabel. Her enunciation wasn’t always as clear at her voice is lovely, and Alex Corson’s voice as Frederic got lost in the sound of the orchestra at times. Both have the pipes to carry when it’s demanded; imperfect amplification and balance may have been behind at least some of this minor hindrance. One doesn’t expect to understand every word sung in operatic voices, even in one’s own language.
The gist of the story (such as it is) never wandered, nor did Smith’s sublime coloratura in “Poor Wandering One,” one of the production’s most glowing moments. Their duet “How Beautifully Blue the Sky” quickened by Bill Fabris’ graceful choreography was another.
James Mills’ stunning performance of the classic “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” was a marvel of bubbling energy and focused comedy. The very model of all that NYGASP does so well, it epitomized the crisp dancing and staging and the rib-tickling comic business that enlivened the entire production.
If anything the show picked up even more steam in the second act. Chorus-line loopiness and Monty Python-esque shtick made the policemen’s ridiculous numbers riotous fun, led by David Auxier’s marvelous Sergeant. After further charming duets between Frederic and Mabel, Mills’ mock-ballet with Macaluso’s Samuel further raised the pitch of humor.
All the while the excellent orchestra kept pace beautifully – except when it wasn’t supposed to. And the ensemble, loaded with fine dancing and strong voices, turned the stage into a whirlwind of droll excitements and boisterous passions.
The house for The Pirates of Penzance was packed. There are only a few performances of each production during NYGASP’s NYC season. These very short runs makes their very high levels of both polish and vigor especially remarkable. Visit the website for information about upcoming New York City and out-of-town performances. NYGASP will be touring the country this winter and spring with full and small-ensemble productions, and in March staging an unusual NYC program of two short G&S-like Savoy curtain-raisers, Ages Ago (1881) by W.S. Gilbert and Frederic Clay and Mr. Jericho (1893) by Harry Greenbank and Ernest Ford.
Cornwall’s warm and fuzzy pirates are sure to be back sooner or later, of course. Meanwhile, anything NYGASP stages is bound to be top-notch. Catch them sooner or later – better yet, both.