BWW Review: THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE at Gilbert And Sullivan Austin
Since 1976 the Gilbert and Sullivan Austin has dedicated itself to providing the city with the works of Gilbert and Sullivan not so much by reinvention but by recreating how a production might have been staged originally. There is a respect due this sort of commitment, and the audience in attendance this last Saturday when I viewed the production, showed theirs in a true sense of a special occasion. I can recall the respect I was expected to display, and the authentic excitement I felt anytime I attended a play or musical back in the day. Back in the Ice Age, when I simultaneously became a teenager and discovered theatre, it was considered an event just shy of your cousin's wedding to attend the theatre. People got dressed up, showed up on time and applauded civilly after each musical number back then. Why, no one stood for an ovation even unless the production was spot on literally flawless.
So you can imagine my appreciation of the Gilbert and Sullivan Austin's production of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. There was a well-appointed full house at the Worley Barton Theatre at Brentwood Christian School (a theatre itself worthy of praise, complete with orchestra pit and projection.). There was even a curtain, and it rose on our story, directly after a practically perfect overture provided by the Gillman Light Orchestra.
The story here concerns young Frederic (Danny Castillo) who has mistakenly been raised by a band of pirates because his nursemaid Ruth mistook his father's request to apprentice a pilot. Now stuck on his 21st birthday having been raised by pirates and not pilots, Frederic must see the world and, as duty would have it, he must also destroy the pirates, soft-hearted rascals that they are. Frederic goes ashore, despite being begged to stay by his ever-faithful Ruth, who has not given him an accurate experience of what women could be like in the "real" world. As fate would have it, Frederic finds himself a bevy of maidens, led by the beautiful Mabel (Suzanne Lis) when he goes ashore. The Pirates follow and attempt to have their nefarious ways with Mabel's sisters. Their plans are temporarily waylaid by the Major General Stanley (Arthur DiBianca). Soon after, Frederic enlists a group of cowardly policemen to assist him in raiding the pirates and arresting them, but his plans to lead this endeavor fail when the Pirate King (Sam Johnson) and Ruth intercept him to tell him a harsh truth. He was born in a leap year, he's only a little over five years old, and he must return to his life as a pirate. And ever a man of integrity, he does so. Meanwhile, the pirates creep in and defeat the police, Ruth outs the pirates as noblemen who swear allegiance to the Queen, and all is well.
The Austin Gilbert and Sullivan Society give us a big-hearted show in this PIRATES OF PENZANCE. This is not a show where you'll see incredible acting and the finest of dancing. These are not objectionable statements for such a show, as the heart of the matter here is the music. Ralph MacPhail Jr's staging and choreography is not perfect but quite forgivable, and these performers are for the most part, singers. The music and voices here are that on which MacPhail concentrates. He lets the music and singers under the direction of Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, take center. And no one is the wiser for it, as far as I could tell, on the night I attended.
Among those at most ease with all aspects of their roles, Arthur DiBianca as the Major General, Sam Johnson as the Pirate King, and the hilarious Russell Gregory, in his role as the Sargeant. Having pointed these folks out, it cannot go without saying that this cast is made up, by far, of extraordinarily talented singers who embrace this work with an enthusiasm that makes the evening feel just a little magical. They're lead by strong leads in Suzanne Lis and Danny Castillo.
Costume Coordinator Pam Fowler makes everyone look the part and Jennifer Rogers lights the show soundly. Set designer Ann Marie Gordon provides a rather stock and unimpressive first act set, but a gorgeous set follows in Act II.
Despite these flaws, PIRATES OF PENZANCE is exciting and enjoyable fun that brings this classic to life. It won't disappoint.
June 15 - June 25, 2017
Worley Barton Theatre at Brentwood Christian School
11908 N Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX, 78753
June 15-25, 2017 / Thursdays-Sundays
at www.gilbertsullivan.org or 512.474.5664
Photo Credit: Brenda Ladd