The Lincolnshire MarriottÂ's Â"PiratesÂ": Theatrically Good to Great, But Musically Frustrating
Like the composer Georges Bizet's "Carmen" (1875) before it, the 1879 "The Pirates of Penzance" by Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (text by Sir W. S. Gilbert) is one of those works which has been adapted and performed by both theater companies and opera companies, and certainly should continue to be. Other works, like Kern's "Show Boat" (1927), Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" (1935), Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" (1978) and (both from 1956) Bernstein's "Candide" and Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella," are also in the same sweet spot, either having one foot on each side of the great music/theater divide, or being so richly textured in design that great performing artists of whatever stripe find value and inspiration from them. Audiences, performers and directors love putting a slightly different emphasis on the written material, and parsing out the results. And really, can Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" be far behind in joining this list?
These works are valuable for keeping up many old conversations, like "What is the difference between an opera and a musical?" "Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?" "What is an operetta/comic opera/singspiel/pop opera?" "What is the role of recitative (sung dialogue)?" And "How do you gracefully go into a song without making the audience feel uncomfortable?" The ancient Greeks dealt with these questions, as did the cavemen, I'm guessing. And so, the circle of life continues.
In our time and place, the great Marriott Theatre to the north of Chicago, in Lincolnshire, in the collar county of Lake, has mounted a production of "The Pirates of Penzance" which officially opened this past weekend, and will run through June 10, 2012. It's directed by Dominic Missimi, a visionary musical theater director and teacher with vast experience and influence across the country, and especially here. I have a great deal of respect for Dominic. And though I don't know for sure, I suspect that this production was scheduled specifically to honor the talents of two Chicago theater veterans who are exceptionally well cast, Ross Lehman and Alene Robertson. And while the production they appear in is fine and enjoyable, I may be in the minority by finding much of it frustrating, with a few elements simply ill-conceived. Though I am quite familiar with the show, I think that my reservations do not stem from over-familiarity. Let me explain.
Any audience member attending a show at the Marriott, whether a first-time single ticket buyer or a long-time subscriber, knows what s/he is getting from the moment of entering the theater. A vast, yet intimate, theatrical experience is in store, Broadway in quality, Chicago in scale. And of course, it's a musical--that's all they do there. (As a colleague of mine reacted, when told I was reviewing this production: "I didn't know they did operettas at the Marriott!" "They don't," I said, "they're doing it like a musical." "Oh," she said.)
This production does not cite Music Theatre International in the program, and therefore the Marriott must not be officially licensing the famous New York Shakespeare Festival production of the show from the early 1980s that starred Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, the late, lamented George Rose and (depending on whether it was in Central Park, on Broadway or on film) Patricia Routledge, Estelle Parsons and Angela Lansbury (with Tony Azito). The script and score concern a comically unsuccessful shipful of pirates, their apprentice (comic enough right there), his nursemaid, and, once they go ashore, a bevy of single girls and their mentally elsewhere father, with a late appearance by some also-ineffectual London policemen. Putting a pop/rock sensibility and a camp/parody theatrical edge onto a show laced with Victorian satire and the whiff of college music departments (and public domain, community light-opera earnestness) was daring, even controversial, in its time, and it paid off handsomely for Joe Papp and his people.