AISLE SAY Twin Cities


By W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Joe Dowling
Guthrie Theatre
725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis
May 14-June 13, 2004

Reviewed by David Erickson and Roxanne Sadovsky

David: It's hard to fault the Guthrie's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's classic, The Pirates of Penzance. It bubbles along like…

Rox: Go ahead, Mr. Artistically Disappointed. Get the criticism out of the way so I can launch into my Guthrie-worship.

David: Oh, sure. Make me look bad.

Rox: You never look bad, Sweets, just honest, an admirable quality in a critic. Besides, with the acclaim this show has been getting, do The Twin Cities really need another voice from the bright side?

David: I guess not. All right, you asked for it…

Rox: Not so fast, Big Guy. Let me provide a brief synopsis of the play. Despite its popularity over the years, like Christmas, I was deprived of this classic as a child. Therefore I had some catching up to do as far as the plot is concerned, beginning with the fictitious town of Penzplace.

David: Penzance. And it's not fictitious.

Rox: It's not? Maybe I'm confusing it with Transylvania.

David: Which also exists. May we get on with it? The plot, please.

Rox: Okay. Pirates 101: This classic Gilbert & Sullivan musical was the fifth collaboration between London's late1800's beloved team. Well known for their satire, comedic timing, and complementary blend of musical and playwriting talents, G & S are especially known for their parodies of Victorian England…Is that right, David?

David: Sort of…More?

Rox: So, "Pirates", subtitled "The Slave of Duty", is pretty much a "right in your face" examination of the back-asswards political and social conditions of Victorian England. The two-act operetta tells the archetypal story of "us against them" by pitting the pirates (of Penzance) against the British authorities. In order for audiences to endure the familiar plot (not to mention 2 and 1/2 hours, which in musical time is more like six), director Joe Dowling camps up the stage with his own brand of wit, dance, stunts, stylized choreography, while staying true to the classic. What steers the ship, however, is a love story between Christopher Atkin look-alike Dan Callaway, who plays Frederick, a pirate apprentice indentured to the gang until his 21st year; and Mabel (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), a dainty but bad-girl Brit, fully equipped with corset and parasol. When they first meet on a romantic windswept beach—where Frederick is set free from his shipmates—it is love at first sight, but before they can run off together happily ever after, there are still one and a half acts to get through. Even though this fact is challenging to accept as an audience member with ADHD, what ensues, while not surprising, is definitely entertaining. Without giving it all away, however, the story engages us with several subplots surrounding loyalty verses individuality, right v. wrong, and of course, heroes and villains, all of which Pirates encourages us to check out within ourselves. That said, I must say I was fairly entertained. Not only that, but I was proud of myself for being able to follow the plot. In fact, the only time my mind wandered back to my to-do list, was during the scene—

David: Excuse me. My turn?

Rox: Oh, sorry, hon. But one more thing: Didn't you just love the set? How the ocean was painted on the hard wood floor? Really, when they all splashed around, it was really easy to see all the waves and stuff. And the lighting was amazing! How they made it look like a sunset on the ocean? You know? David? Anyway, I like that painted ocean. I think we should do that in our bathroom. K?

David: Anyway…

Roxanne: Sorry.

David: In a word, typical. The typical faultless Guthrie product the typical Guthrie goer expects when they pop a quarter (or $53) into the Guthrie magic dramatic machine. Out pops a memorable evening, freshness dated.

Rox: My, aren't we cranky.

David: Alright, alright, sheesh. There was a live orchestra, or at least I heard rumors of one. Anyway, there was a list of musicians in the program, and I could tell from the TV screens (providing cues from a gesticulating image of the conductor to the performers) that graced the balconies that somewhere in the bowels of the theatre, talented musicians were relegated to some gloomy corner, when in more enlightened times they could be found in the venerable "pit" at the front of the stage. But for the purposes of providing "modern" entertainment, they had microphones inserted up every orifice and were broadcast through the sound system of the Guthrie at über-hi-fidelity to every corner of the house, while they cowered out of sight of the audience, sawing their fiddles to a conductor watching the show through a TV monitor of his own. Welcome to the 21st century of musical theatre. Why didn't they just throw a CD in a boombox and call it a night? I don't think the VH1-addled audience would've been any the wiser. Apparently new musical arrangements had been written especially for this production, and while they did justice to the wonderful melodies of the score, not to mention the style of the times, the reason why they choose then to fart in the face of this great tradition by sticking the band in a back room somewhere eludes me completely. Not to mention that the acoustical characteristics of several JBL disco speakers dangling from the ceiling aren't quite up to reproducing the total range of an instrument like, say, the kettle drum used during the show—which tended to sound more like a surprised party balloon than the thunderous accent one would like to hear.

Rox: Take a deep breath David. Anything else?

David: Uh, yeah.

Rox: Get it all out. You're safe here.

David: Uh, okay. Well naturally there has to be some updating of a piece like this, after all we don't live in 18th century England, and some of the words and references are a bit over the heads of today's "education-lite" culture. Still, I would have been very happy to do without the occasional, glib references to local politicians, tourist attractions, etc., inserted into the libretto. I'm sure this was something they did in the olden days as well, after all we're not talking grand opera here, but it would've been nice to preserve some of the dignity of the piece, instead of throwing cheap laughs to the cheap seats in the name of repeat business. In the same spirit, maybe nix the break-dancing curtain calls and disco remixes during same. I mean, if people can't relate to the original music, sticking a slap bass and back beat on it just embarrasses everyone.

Rox: Er…

David: I'm done.

Rox: But you did like it. Right?

David: I enjoyed the excellent quality of the performances, the effective sets, and the colorful costumes, even though the pirate's neon-accented spandex-esque attire made them look like the guys who failed the Motley Crue auditions.

Rox: But you liked it.

David: Yeah, sure. It was nice.

Rox: You know, this is very profound, David. I think you are getting at something here. I think I have been feeling something similar, which explains why I am having a hard time coming up with things to say about the play. I mean, really, what more can I say? It was good. It was entertaining. It was shiny. It was crisp, except for the two lines that Callaway botched, which I can never NOT notice, by the way. I know you missed them, but they were so obvious to me. Not that it's any big deal, but it's like one of those things, in my case, you can't undo. You know? It's like watching an Olympic skater fall on the ice, no matter how quickly she recovers.

David: Is there a point?

Rox: Well, yeah. Maybe. I guess the point is this: "Pirates" was wonderful, but I have nothing more to add to that. Did it change my life? No. Was it thought provoking or inspiring? No. Did I feel for the characters? No. That's not to say I didn't think The Pirate King (Brian Sutherland) wasn't a babe or anything...But still. Overall, it was just another very clean and entertaining show, but the satire didn't take. Not for me. I understood it, but I wasn't moved by it. Make sense? Captain?

David: Aye, matey. Now raise the hindsail and heave-to.

Rox: I beg your pardon?

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