Through April 28th the mellifluous melodies of Arthur Gilbert and the witty libretto by W. S. Sullivan will be wafting through the rafters of Bristol Riverside Theatre as The Pirates of Penzance invade the stage. Through a rectangular slot we view a sizable orchestra which sits two stories high above the action. The walls of the set create two giant leaves of a book of music thrust upon its side. Into this simple, suggestive setting swings the Pirate King, a notorious cutthroat with a heart of gold.
The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty was written in 1879 and had its premiere at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City with its London debut in April of the following year. This comic opera in two acts pokes fun at the Victorian sensibilities which prized honor and duty above all else. The plot has young Frederic completing his 21st year of apprenticeship to a band of soft hearted pirates. He meets Mabel (daughter of Major-General Stanley) and falls madly in love. Alas, he discovers that his true birthday is on February 29 which is a leap year. By the terms of his contract he must stay with the pirates until his 21st birthday. Since as a leap year baby he has only had 5 birthdays, he must endure another 63 years of indenture to the jovial band. As Frederic is bound by a strong sense of “duty”, he has no recourse but to acquiesce. And Mabel, herself a dutiful daughter, lovingly says she will wait for him.
Joe Papp's 1981 production on Broadway, which ran for 787 performances, winning the Tony Award for Best Revival and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical was a highly spirited camped up version of this classic. Since then, certain antics have been assimilated into modern productions e.g., rope swinging pirates, pratfalling policemen, and the Pirate King’s sword fight with the conductor.) Unfortunately, since the orchestra is way above the action, the last prank does not occur in this production.
Patrick Dunn gives a standout performance as Frederic, the young man who was supposed to be apprenticed as a “pilot” and not a “pirate”. A marvelous tenor voice partnered with terrific acting chops makes this young performer a joy to watch. No slouch in the talent department, April Woodall is a fabulous Ruth, with a lovely, lyric soprano voice and a delightful gift for comedy. On the night I attended Maria Failla played the role of Mabel. The dictates of this role are that Mabel must look pretty and sound pretty – and with Ms. Failla’s coloratura cadenzas and sweet countenance – she did just this. Nick Cordero does a fine job actorially as the swashbuckling Pirate King, though I lost some of his lyrics when he sang in his lower register. Julian Alvarez is a comic caricature as the extremely agile Sergeant of Police. Alas his police force isn’t quite able to keep up with him. The six Major-General’s daughters who make up the female chorus were quite amusing. And the “Hail, Poetry” moment is musically striking. However, Major-General Stanley was a disappointment. His song, “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General” did not stop the show, but certainly slowed it down a bit. The orchestra was laying down a tempo which the actor was way ahead of. So much so, that we didn’t understand a word he sang. So, when he did it the second time, even faster – it was a complete muddle. Granted this song is a Vaudeville trick (much the same as Danny Kay’s nightclub act was) but if you can’t get every silly word and joke – there’s no trick to it.
The costumes by Linda Bee Stockton are particularly fetching with colorful, eye-popping patterns and plenty of fun frou-frou. And what a kick to see all those parasols! Unfortunately, the choreography seemed to get in the way of much of the action. There seemed to be an over abundance of movement and not all of it was executed very well. The “less is more” adage would have been well applied here. Let’s face it; this cast was assembled for their great pipes, so give them a break. Though the leads and the female chorus were particularly strong it was hard for me to feel very enthused by the second act, as the production seemed to lose its steam.
For tickets call the box office at 215-785-0100 or visit: www.brtstage.org .
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