Review: NYGASP Returns With A Delightful Production of PIRATES OF PENZANCE

After a two-year hiatus, NYGASP is finally back.

By: Apr. 14, 2022
Review: NYGASP Returns With A Delightful Production of PIRATES OF PENZANCE
Sarah Caldwell Smith and Ensemble (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Finally, after a long hiatus, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) is back at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse. They had to cut their 2020 season short due to the pandemic, but they're finally back with a classic Gilbert & Sullivan work: The Pirates of Penzance.

With every production, NYGASP offers something unique: a musical time capsule, serving up a 19th century work with a wink to the present. They don't disappoint with their 2022 production of the Pirates of Penzance, one of Gilbert & Sullivan's most well-known works. It's a treat to see a fully staged production that breathes life (and humor) into a nearly 150-year-old musical.

For all its age, Pirates still holds its charm, helped along by a few tongue-in-cheek touches. NYGASP's productions are at once highbrow and lowbrow, wrapping old-timey language with a wide vocabulary with enough slapstick comedy, physicality, and visual gags that anyone of any age can enjoy it. Some of NYGASP's modern nods had children in the audience squealing with laughter (at one point, the Modern Major General emerges wearing big fuzzy bunny slippers).

Pirates of Penzance is a charming, lightly funny musical of inconsequential plot, like almost every G&S work. The NYGASP company performs with glee; the actors and dancers look like they're having the time of their lives with every number. The show is staged well, with ballet dancers filling the stage at Hunter College's Danny Kaye Theater. The full orchestra does justice to Arthur Sullivan's lovely compositions; some gems from the score include "Poor Wandering One" and "With Cat-Like Tread."

Surprisingly, too, Penzance is a bit funny all on its own, by which I mean there are some funny lines written into the book and lyrics even without NYGASP's slight adjustments. That's a rare feat for a comedy, a genre Jon Stewart once described as being like a burrito (it starts out good and but disintegrates rapidly with age). The crux of the show depends on wordplay (the main character Frederick's nursemaid accidentally apprentices him to a pirate, when his father had asked for her to take him to a pilot). Talented acting and dancing on the part of the cast help bring out the show's charm. The acting is often exaggerated, vaudeville-style, but never overdone. The dancers prove their ability to go in one fell swoop from graceful ballet to slapstick, comedic movements. In one scene Frederick, finding himself among a bevy of beauties, pleads indiscriminately for someone's hand in marriage. "If you will cast your eyes on me, / However plain you be - I'll love you!" The dancers - playing the Major General's beautiful wards - prove their comedic timing in their immediate rejection of Frederick, who just inadvertently insulted them.

Musical theater fans will also enjoy the history evident in each and every one of NYGASP's productions. Gilbert & Sullivan has an enduring place in musical theater history. Before there was Stephen Sondheim, and before there was Cole Porter, G&S revolutionized musicals and invented, or at least popularized, the "patter" song. Their work is woven into the fabric of American musical theater. Even if you don't know them, you know them. (In Hamilton, Washington raps a line of Penzance: "Now I'm the model of a modern major general.") The Major General (played in the production I saw by David Malacuso, and by James Mills in the evening performances) performs a stunning rendition of "Modern Major General," going faster and faster on the tongue-twisting song that by the end that he gets through it in seconds.

NYGASP's runs typically last just a weekend, and Penzance has already closed, but if you missed this production, sign up for their mailing list or follow them on social media to find out when the next one is. As a professional repertory company "giving vitality to the living legacy of Gilbert & Sullivan through performance and education", NYGASP usually stages three shows a season - each and every one a treat.