BWW Review: CFTA's Tuneful and Entertaining THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
Director Chris McLaurin makes a particularly auspicious debut at the helm of his rollicking - and beautifully sung and winningly staged - production of Gilbert and Sullivan's classic The Pirates of Penzance, now playing at Murfreesboro's Center for the Arts through August 27. Charming and engaging, McLaurin's Pirates hews closely to the comic opera's original production (the only one of Gilbert and Sullivan's works to actually have its initial staging on Broadway - in 1879), testament to the libretto's timelessness and its refreshingly contemporary humor.
The story is madcap and topsy-turvy (which happens to be the name of a feature film about the Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, in case you're looking for more about the pair with which to be entertained), to be certain, and the colorful antics of the various characters are portrayed with a never-say-die attitude, the requisite zaniness giving audiences much to engage them amid the onstage hijinks punctuated with expert musicianship from some talented vocalists. McLaurin wisely allows his actors to skirt the line that separates realism from near-farcical melodrama, which supplies the productions with energy and an almost effervescent sense of lighthearted fun.
While audiences are ensured of almost more fun that the law allows, they are treated to performances by a cadre of capable singers who bring the time-honored score to life with zestful energy and admirable commitment. Musical director Stephanie Jones (who does double-duty, also taking on the role of Ruth to impressive results) makes certain that the score is given its due, eliciting some extraordinarily good performances from the cast, led by Mark David Williams' loyal and stalwart Frederic, coloratura Alexis Alduenda's golden-voiced Mabel (I could listen to her "Poor, Wand'ring One" on an endless loop), Nate Paul's impeccable Major General Stanley and Kevin Compton's wonderfully acted Sergeant of Police. Their quartet of glorious voices bring the score to vivid, rapturous life that holds the audience in their thrall from start to finish.
The nonsensical plot - a kindly band of pirates come to contretemps with a modern major general and his coterie of winsome, comely daughters, resulting in a comical battle of the ridiculous variety with the local constabulary, bent on keeping the peace even as they maintain their own safety - is the stuff of theatrical legend and the romance of the hour is of the "falling in love at first sight" genre. There are plenty of laughable bon mots and enough slapstick comedy to keep even the most curmudgeonly in the stalls breathlessly entertained.
Yet somehow, perhaps even miraculously, nothing seems overdone or the stuff of stagey artifice. Rather, everything seems perfectly plausible thanks to the creative team (which includes assistant director Natalie Quinn - whom McLaurin confided is the team's "heart and soul" - and choreographer Melissa Becker) and their resolve to both pay homage to Gilbert and Sullivan and to make the work accessible to modern-day audiences.
The action of the piece starts off at a fast clip when we are first introduced to young Frederic, the puffy shirt-wearing 21-year-old eager to leave his indentured servitude to the Pirate King (played to over-the-top perfection by the sword-brandishing Ryan Leyhue, exhibiting his penchant for all things pirate) and to venture forth in search of adventure and romance. As he sets forth on his journey, uncertain of the escapades still to come, Frederic happens upon a picnicking gaggle of beautiful young women (titian-tressed Lindsay Wortham is delightful as Edith, with the gorgeous Mara Smotherman as the determined Kate, along with their lovely sisters portrayed with equal grace by Lydia McLaurin, Emily Davis, Katie Boothe and Valerie Denney) cavorting upon the beach and considering their own options of love and marriage still to come.
Frederic and Mabel meet, fall in love in an instant and pledge their undying devotion to each other, all the while expressing their ardor and passion with their classically trained and oh-so-melodious voices. Williams and Alduenda are ideally cast, her exquisite coloratura soprano soaring to the rafters and his strong, forceful tenor perfectly matching. Together, they set off fireworks of a metaphorical sort.
Therefore, the stage is set for the hilarity that ensues when the girls and their estimable Major General of a father (Nate Paul's performance of "Modern Major General," the oft-parodied tune that is a classic of both opera and musical theater, is show-stopping and nothing less than thrilling) come face-to-face with the Pirate King and his band of mischief makers (played gleefully by Sherry Sunday Booth, Jacob Samuels, Caleb Dillon and Brandon Fletcher).
When the pirates make their way to the recently acquired Stanley estate to settle accounts, the local constabulary arrive to keep the peace in bumbling, stumbling fashion (kudos to constables Sam Downer, Stephen Burnette, RJ Polito, Tim Tayler, Jared Taylor and JorDan Taylor). Compton's performance as the Sergeant of the constabulary is particularly impressive (his voice is stunning), as he encapsulates of that which separates the genuine comic opera-scaled histrionics from that of the pretend or make-believe. His performance, amid a coterie of notable ones, is the one most worthy of an ovation.
Lisa McLaurin's costumes are eye-poppingly gorgeous, with each character ideally clad base on his or her character. Katie Boothe, who is designated as "director of stage aesthetic," makes certain the production is lovely to look at. John Frost Jr.'s sound design is commendable and Corinne Fann's lighting design nicely illuminates the proceedings, although the logistics of the CFTA stage are presents its own set of challenges.
The Pirates of Penzance. Music by Arthur Sullivan. Libretto by W.S. Gilbert. Directed by Chris McLaurin. Assistant directed by Natalie Quinn. Musical direction by Stephanie Jones. Choreographed by Melissa Becker. Presented by Center for the Arts, Murfreesboro. Running through August 27. For tickets and other information, call (615) 904-2787 or go to www.boroarts.org. Running time: 2 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).