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.
Missimi and company have looked at the material through much the same lens, and have come to many of the same conclusions and solutions. Kevin Earley's Pirate King is very much in the Kevin Kline mold, all swagger and innocuous bluster, cutting a fine, masculine figure with long and curly locks. His singing is pretty great, too, perhaps the most satisfying of the evening. I highly recommend his performance. Omar Lopez-Cepero has a purer singing voice than Smith showed as Frederic, the apprenticed slave of duty, and is a different kind of sex symbol, but in nonetheless sympathetic and affecting. And Robertson, though slower of gait than the character ladies who proceeded her as Ruth, is hilarious and sports a fantastic Broadway contralto. And you should see her ride in a freewheeling rowboat down the aisle of the theater! I am glad, however, that the song "My Eyes Are Fully Open," added to the show for these three characters by NYSF from the later G&S show, "Ruddigore," and listed in the Marriott's program, has apparently been cut. I always thought it slows down the action.
Lehman, having just come from playing Captain Andy Hawks in "Show Boat" at Lyric Opera of Chicago, continues to be on something of a career high right now, all fey fussiness and pompous forgetfulness as the patter-prone Major-General. In the first act of this production, I can't imagine him being bettered. Patricia Noonan is a great find as Mabel, with two high E-flats that sounded great and with every note spot in tune. She looks beautiful and young and sweet, with just the right amount of preciousness to add zing to her seemingly predictable demeanor. The limber Andrew Lupp does everything asked of him as the Sergeant of Police, leading his band of bobbies into rubber-legged fear and trembling, not quite as Chaplinesque as Azito's interpretation, but certainly similar.
So what's the problem? Well, on the theatrical side, there are some comic moments in the second act that simply don't land, and some business with statues that don't make sense (the Major-General is forgetful and fey, not blind). While some additions of animal hand-puppets are clever, I couldn't quite see what was going on, and straining to see tiny business with a first-row audience member pulled me out of the action. The set, by Thomas M. Ryan, makes a tremendous amount of sense in the first scene on the ship, but less so in later scenes, seeming under-populated (no sand, weeds or grass?). The lighting and sound are serviceable, though I did find much to enjoy about Nance Missimi's costumes.
Musically speaking, I have reservations as well. While I understand that music isn't the point of this production, I believe that raising the bar on the comedy and delivering a knowing point of view doesn't have to translate to less than quality regarding the attention paid to the music. I am not at all concerned about the use of Broadway or pop vocal techniques here, knowing that it's a matter of choice and taste and audience expectation. Rather, I don't understand why singers who are obviously quite musical and experienced would choose to sing some wrong notes, or just sing (occasionally) out of tune.
I am fine with pirates sounding raucous. And I liked some, but not all, of the choices made by Broadway's David Siegel ("Newsies") in creating new brass-heavy orchestrations for this production. But I know how these melodies go, and sometimes the singers are just singing other pitches. I expect more at the Marriott, one of the nation's most important musical theater companies. And I know these actors are capable singers. They negotiated the tricky meter changes in "Stay, We Must Not Lose Our Senses" with absolutely no problem (bravo to musical director Ryan T. Nelson and conductor Patti Garwood). The "Hail, Poetry" section was strong, if not subtle. And the leading performers, with a variety of vocal techniques to draw from, mostly come together in a common sound, bright and casual for the younger ones, with a more mid-century Broadway character sound for Lehman and Robertson. But I wanted more from the music.
As for the sixteen-member ensemble, the men (many doing double-duty) are a motley, lusty lot, and the ladies do a great job of creating different characters as the wards in chancery. (Credit to much of the swirl and thrust of the production numbers must go to choreographer Matt Raftery.) Jeff Max finds some memorable vocal inflections as Samuel, and Susan Moniz sounds great as the Major-General's probably oldest daughter, Edith. The biggest single misfire of the evening, however, belongs to the Lupp and the policemen, who are asked to turn the second verse of their song "When a Felon's Not Engaged in His Employment" into a rap, complete with shouting, fist pumping and a percussion-laded orchestral backup. What? Originally a soft-shoe, the song as re-conceived, and performed, made me rather uncomfortable, to say the least. I appreciate the attempt at contemporary relevance (and there were other, successful attempts in the show), but this is just out of place.
If you want a fun evening at the theater, with some delightful melodies and campy parody, beautiful costumes and a zany story line, then this production is for you. The swordplay, hilarity and modern approach to an older show will be appealing to many, and the chance to see this particular cast in this particular show is a strong draw indeed. Is it a definitive theatrical production of this music-theater masterpiece? No, for the reasons cited above. But I did have a good time, head-scratching aside. The folks around me seemed satisfied. These legendary characters and situations are well-served. But if music is your thing, you may be slightly puzzled by the proceedings. Buddy, beware.
"The Pirates of Penzance" will be presented at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL, opening April 14 and running through June 10. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays. Tickets are $41-$49. Call the Marriott Theatre Box Office at 847.634.0200 or use www.ticketmaster.com. Visit www.MarriottTheatre.com for more information.
Photos courtesy of the Marriott Theatre.