Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, as directed by Eric Gibson of Light Opera Oklahoma (LOOK), will delight audiences both familiar with and new to the operetta.
First, a little background on Gilbert and Sullivan. In the late nineteenth century some composers felt that opera had become stagnant. W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were two such composers who, along with the other artists of the Savoy Theatre, wrote a series of operettas. These comic operas avoided high dramatic content and even parodied operatic conventions.
Frederic (Brian Cheney) has been apprenticed to a pirate king for several years due to a misunderstanding between his father and his hard-of-hearing nanny Ruth (Melissa Parks). However, today he turns twenty-one, the age at which his apprenticeship ends.
Onboard the pirate ship (or, in this modernized production, sequestered away in the Penzance Shipping offices), he has never seen another woman besides Ruth. She has fallen in love with her young ward, and told him there are no women whose beauty can compare with hers.
Almost immediately after disembarking from the pirate ship, Frederic meets a gaggle of gorgeous, giggling girls that compete for his affections. In the end he falls in love with Mabel (Diana McVey), daughter of the Major General Stanley (Patrick Jacobs). The other pirates catch up with Frederic, and each of them finds a potential mate amongst the remaining girls. Stanley soon interrupts them, and upon learning their piratical status forbids his daughters to marry them.
The pirates threaten to steal the daughters off anyway, being pirates and all, but Stanley lies to them, appealing to their one weak spot: their sense of charity toward orphans. Being an orphan, Stanley would be devastated (so he claims) by the loss of his only family members. The pirates, disappointed, surrender the daughters.
Meanwhile, Ruth and the pirates scheme to get Frederic back on their ship, and Frederic contacts the local police to drive away the pirate menace, bringing the play to its hilarious climax.
A New LOOK
Though The Pirates of Penzance has been around for nearly 150 years, and heavily produced during that time, this production smells newly minted. Gibson's staging conveys a heightened playfulness.
Even the production's conception of the pirate band as a smartly attired corporate committee, a dangerously dry commentary on contemporary business ethics, comes off as zany and fun. This updated take on Pirates keeps it fresh for those who've seen the show, and doesn't detract from the original for those who've never seen it.
However, there were moments that strained my credulity, namely when the characters explicitly discuss nautical terms or piratehood.
The show's design and direction, despite the carefree attitude of the pirates, is anything but careless. The evening is the result of premeditated decisions and rehearsed moments.
The kinetic choreography wheels about the stage, yet feels tightly controlled. The flippant punchlines are adroitly delivered. The frolicsome melodies are well-harmonized.
I had difficulty understanding the diction of a few actors during the first act, but during the second act they were much clearer. Jacobs as the Major General is a bit breathless, though I enjoyed the acting choices he made.
To return to the subject of design, I loved the set and costumes, courtesy of designer Ashley Bellet.
I'm a fan of representative spaces in theater anyway, but I felt the listing platform and the muslin slats lent more texture to the stage than, say, a realistic reproduction of an office space would have. It's an evocative design that gives the actors plenty of imaginative space to experiment with.
I found the free-floating modern shelving in the second act intriguing. It indicates a shift from the exterior space of the first act to the interior space of the second's "drafty ruin," a line which clearly influenced the bare-bones shelving. However, I found myself worrying about whether an actor was going to smack his head against it, which again took me out of the play.
The actors stand out in their vibrant costumes. That alone is a feat in and of itself, given the size of the pirate and daughter ensembles. Each pirate (remember, businessmen in this production) wears a similar suit, yet bears some emblematic marker or color to distinguish him from the others. With the women, Bellet has a little more freedom, yet given the variety of shapes and colors in their costumes they still cohere as a group.
The design's success makes me eager (well, even more eager than I was before) to see LOOK's Into the Woods later this season.
The same goes for the actors' and director's success. Gibson has a lot of actors onstage, yet keeps traffic flowing smoothly. If you press your ears shut during a musical and can still follow the story, you can esteem the staging as successful. And it is.
Not that you'd want to stop listening. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote lighthearted operas; Gilbert knew music and Sullivan knew language. And LOOK's actors and musicians have been paying attention.
The actors have a lot of witty dialogue on their hands, and they wring opportunity from each line into their mouths. The production doesn't let a chance for theatre-related meta-humor to slip by, either. I especially loved the gags that involved conductor James Bagwell, who, in addition to these brief humorous moments, pilots the show's momentum and energy.
At the end of it all, the word of the day is "fun." This is a fun operetta, produced and performed by playful talents. There are lots of laughs to be had, so if laughing is your thing, check it out. And hey, if you're not so hot on Gilbert and Sullivan, LOOK's productions Into the Woods and Candide are coming up in just a few weeks.
The Pirates of Penzance plays at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's SummerStage Festival on June 22 and 26 and July 5 and 12. For more information, visit www.lightoperaok.org or call 583-4267.
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