BWW Reviews: PIRATES OF PENZANCE at Toby's is Silly and Sublime

When it came to my attention that Toby's, the dinner theater in Columbia, was going to stage Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, I was puzzled. Toby's does musicals, and Pirates is an operetta. And while the line between the genres is somewhat indistinct, Pirates lies well over the line, relying, as operettas do, on operatic orchestras and singers. How could Toby's mount something like this? What I had failed to take into account was the 1980 Joseph Papp version, which reorchestrated it and made it work for smaller ensembles, not to mention repointing the music (much like repointing a wall) in ways that both brightened it and mined it for comical effect. Papp's version also softened the musical demands on the singers, chipping some of the operatic corners off the arias, as it were, and in particular made it safe for it star, singer Linda Ronstadt, who grew up with much appreciation for opera but (so far as I know) no formal operatic training. In short, Papp made the work safe for the scale and the preparation of musical theater troupes.

The Toby's people, I learned, have worked off the Papp adaptation of Pirates once before, in 1990. So they knew what they were getting into. The Papp version, which began life in Central Park, traveled to Broadway, and ended up on the big screen in 1984, was a huge advance in keeping the work available to modern audiences. The stage business was well thought-through, the innovations (e.g. the constables recast as Keystone Kops) added to the delirious silliness of the enterprise, and the glorious Arthur Sullivan music and the inspired W.S. Gilbert lyrics came through to advantage.

Toby's, under the stage direction of Mark Minnick and the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings, have managed to bring us many of the aspects of the Papp production in good order.

Interestingly, however, one Papp innovation they cannily did not follow was in the choice of the female lead, Mabel. Linda Rondstadt has a more than serviceable voice, but it is not the coloratura sort of soprano for which the role was written. Toby's, which generally works with an extended company of "regulars" trained in the world of musicals, brought in an outsider, Peabody Conservatory alum Laura Whittenberger, who simply blows away every other voice whenever she starts to sing. She adds an irresistible element to what already was well-nigh irresistible.

As I've written in reviewing an earlier revival, the heart of the operetta's appeal is the sublime silliness of its premises: pirates from the era of sail plundering Victorian steamships and sheltering in a Cornish seaside resort; pirates with indentured apprentices; pirates with a sense of punctilio that forbids them to attack orphans or resist any constable who invokes the Queen's name; pirates who are members of the House of Lords "gone wrong," not to mention a major general with six daughters who all seem to be the same age. And the silliest thing of all is the sense of duty afflicting the young hero, Frederic, who feels bound to honor until he is 84 years of age the terms of an indenture intended to bind him only until age 21, because of an error in the wording. If you start from premises like these, anything can happen, and in this show it pretty much does, with constant reversals of fortune and allegiance. It just never gets stale.

And binding it all together is Sullivan's music. Experiencing this production, for some reason, perhaps the fact that the orchestration was "stripped down" to its essentials to accommodate a band of only six performers, I was more conscious than ever of what a great stage composer Sullivan was. It struck me that, outside the sphere of grand opera, Sullivan has no equals on the stage except possibly Gershwin and Bernstein. Whether we are talking patter songs like I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General, or plaintive arias like Sorry Her Lot (hijacked from H.M.S. Pinafore, but who cares?) or comic and melodic counterpoint like the interplay of the men's and women's choruses in When the Foeman Bares His Steel or yearning duets like Stay, Frederic, Stay!, Sullivan rules.

The cast here was game and able to a man and woman. Standouts included Robert John Biedermann 125 as the fast-talking (in all senses of the word) Major General Stanley, Nick Lehan in fine voice as Frederic, David James as the sergeant of Police (exactly channeling Tony Azito's portrayal in the film), and David Jennings as the Pirate king (half Kevin Kline in the movie, half Johnny Depp). And I liked the opportunity to see this show in the round. Intimacy is kind to Pirates.

What wasn't kind was Toby's perennial problem, the sound. Something about Toby's acoustics or sound production often makes choral singing unintelligible. This is particularly problematic because Gilbert's lyrics, funny and inventive as they always are, are sometimes also idiosyncratic. When the pirates are advancing on General Stanley's mansion, for instance, they sing ("Come, friends, who plough the sea,/ Truce to navigation/ Take another station"), which means essentially that they're proceeding on dry land for the moment. But it's not the obvious way of saying it. Unless you know what they're saying, you won't figure it out at Toby's. My advice would be to bring a libretto.

Bring kids too. If this isn't family fun, I don't know what is.

The Pirates of Penzance, music by Arthur Sullivan, book by W.S. Gilbert, adapted by Joseph Papp, through August 31 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets $39.50 to $58.00. 410-995-1969, . Family-friendly.

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From This Author Jack L. B. Gohn

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