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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.

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Paul W. Thompson Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as a performer, teacher and writer is centered at Paul W. Thompson Music, located in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, where he teaches the great songs of Broadway to the next generation of musical theater performers. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Paul was raised in a family of professional musicians and teachers, steeped in classical, gospel, country, pop, sacred and show music. Dubbed a “thin, winsome lad” at the age of 13 by a critic for the Nashville Banner, he earned two degrees in musical theater (a B.F.A. with Honors from Baylor University and an M.M. from the University of Miami, Florida), plus an M.B.A. with Distinction from DePaul University. Paul’s memberships include Actors’ Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (proud voter for the Grammy Awards!), the National Association of Teachers of Singing and New York’s Drama League.

Moving easily between the worlds of classical music, religious music, classic pop and musical theater, Paul has appeared onstage or in the orchestra pit in concerts, musicals, operettas and operas in 30 states and in Europe, in a career spanning more than 35 years. His Chicagoland stage credits include “Forever Plaid” at the Royal George Theater and twenty mainstage productions at Light Opera Works. Paul joined the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1995 (he was Tenor I Section Leader for four years and sings on two Grammy-winning recordings), and is one of Chicago’s foremost liturgical singers, marking 20 years as a member of the choir at St. James Cathedral (Episcopal) in 2011.He has composed and arranged a number of anthems, hymns and songs for worship and concert use, and collaborates on the creation of new works of musical theater. Paul can be found on Monday nights watching showtune videos at the world-famous Sidetrack nightclub, the inspiration for his weekly column, “The Showtune Mosh Pit.” His proudest achievement is that he has seen the original Broadway production of every Tony Award-winning Best Musical since “Cats.” No, really. Since “Cats!”

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