BWW Reviews: Oh, 'Tis Better to be a Pirate Indeed!
What fun are the action fillEd Battle scenes with their epic swashbuckling and wonderfully choreographed crew of strong men making their way across the stage to proudly proclaim their identities as pirates; with what grace do the dainty young ladies flit about and admire those same pirates who come and take them away with promises of marriage, almost too fantastical a concept to ever really work. How wonderful it is to watch two lovers remain together through the difficulties of a leap year birthday. Simply put, the New YorK Gilbert and Sullivan Players' production of the infamous The Pirates of Penzance is one of the most remarkable shows a theatergoer will see before the near year rolls in.
The Pirates of Penzance, which was first performed at the Fifth Avenue Theatre on December 31, 1879 (precisely when this most recent production is scheduled to end) has returned to New York all these years later, this time to be found at Symphony Space on the beautiful Upper West Side. If this is a show you have yet to see, it is truly a surprise waiting to happen; having never seen this show performed, knowing of it only through name and reputation, this was as much as a personal shock as ever could be expected.
The dynamic duo of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, also responsible for such masterpieces as The Mikado (1885), has created a show which is more of an opera for the likes of musical theatre aficionados, yet nevertheless retains that grand quality of an opera performance; it is a mix of a soprano's dream of high notes, a tenor's ability to reach those same high notes in his respective octave, and the booming voices of baritones which, combined, make this show a true delight to the senses. Although it is a true adventure story, telling the tale of pirates who scavenge the seas and conquer (well, not necessarily...) those that pose a challenge to their band, and of a love that springs to life, only to be challenged by the obligatory acceptance of a man's duty (finger up!), this show can really be described as lighthearted and simplistic. At its core, it is a show that leaves the audience smiling, while also wondering how such fun could be had with themes that would make any other show into some sort of tragedy.
The Pirates of Penzance, in a nutshell, is about a recently turned twenty one year old man named Frederic who has been an apprentice to a band of pirates for most of his life; this, as is discovered, turns out to be a complete misunderstanding, as his true post was meant to be that of a pilot. Due to his nurse's bad hearing, he instead became a traveler of the seas in quite a different vessel. Upon his twenty-first birthday, he is granted his freedom from his pirate brothers, and ventures out to find a young woman who is apparently more beautiful than his middle aged nurse, and is only "supposed" to exist. The story follows Frederic as he encounters the beautiful (and beautifully trained as a soprano) Mabel, with whom he falls in love; of course, where love is involved, so are all sorts of other troubles and tribulations, one which gradually becomes evident is his leap year birthday. Straight through to the end of the opera, Frederic must choose between his love for Mabel and his duty to his brethren, to whom he is still, by some twist in the plot, indebted; without giving anything away, it's safe to say that all turns out alright in the end.
After attending an opening night performance, one would think that there would be a few kinks that need to be fixed, a bit of stage fright to overcome, or even a prop that didn't stay as it ought; there was no such thing as an imperfection in the NYGSP's first performance, so it is certainly safe to say that this entire production was planned out beautifully from its initial stages. From the setting - first the grassy, rock-covered plains that are too pristine to have ever been trod upon (a conjecture given by one of the Major-General Stanley's flighty young wards), followed by its opposite in the second act, a dark, cold ruin - to the choreography (which was superb), it truly took quite a bit of effort to bring this show to its feet. The actors, many of them appearing on behalf of the Actors' Equity Association, are simply amazing; without great actors, how can a show possibly succeed? From the talented and oddly charming Pirate King (played by David Wannen) to the unbelievably coordinated and comical Major-General Stanley (James Mills), to his ward Mabel (bravo to Sarah Caldwell Smith) and her lover Frederic (the very well cast Daniel Greenwood), this show simply WORKED as a result of how well these actors perform together upon the Symphony Space stage.
Kudos must also be given to those within the ensemble, as the show relies so much on those whose dancing makes us all gape in awe, and whose comical antics make us laugh on end, regardless of how many times they are done. It was truly so much fun to sit and watch these characters on stage, and although many of the songs are fairly lengthy, one can only compliment and admire the impressive talents and dedication that each person on (and off) stage must undoubtedly have in order for the very small, intricate pieces of each scene to come together and create something as beautiful as this production. So, a wonderful job indeed to all cast members, the choreographer (Bill Fabris), the costume designer (Gail J. Wofford), scene designer (Lou Anne Gilleland) and all others that made this show truly a wonder to behold.
There were two things in particular that struck me as particularly creative, and those are the director's choice of how to bring about the improvisation which appears in the show, and how the ever important and essential musical component is given such emphasis and recognition. Beginning with the later, director Albert Bergeret (who is so multi-talented that he also serves as the orchestra's conductor) turns the spotlight on his orchestra for at least the first ten minutes of the show, which cannot begin until the entire overture has been played. The orchestra is on stage, and even interacts with the characters during the show, so it is literally the first thing witnessed as the lights in the theatre dim and all goes temporarily silent. This is such a wonderful touch, and much credit should be given to those who actually play the music heard throughout the show, making this opera so fascinating and iconic; wonderful job to all instrumentalists. Now, the improvisation in the show is mild and random, but definitely makes its presence known. For example (and this is probably subject to change, so go and see the show to find out!), Major-General Stanley comes onto the stage in his nightgown during a night scene, which is all well and good, until the audience notices his red boxes underneath and Angry Bird slippers on his feet. The fun really never ends with this show.
The New YorK Gilbert and Sullivan Players' production of The Pirates of Penzance (as part of the company's 2013-14 season) began performances at the Symphony Space (located on Broadway and West 95th Street) on Friday, December 27th, and will continue until December 31st - New Year's Eve. Tickets may be purchased by going to http://nygasp.org or visiting the Symphony Space box office. If you happen to be outside of New York, the NYGSP will be touring from mid-January, so check out where they're headed!
Photo Credit: William Reynolds