Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2004
You must excuse me because I know way too much about The Pirates of Penzance. I have known every note of the score since I was eleven years old and appeared in the policeman’s chorus as a pathetically adolescent member of the constabulary. Tarantara. It is difficult, nay, impossible for me to view the show through the eyes of someone meeting it for the first time, or even through the eyes of someone who does not love Gilbert & Sullivan.
“Face it, Mom,” my fifteen-year-old son Brandon said as we drove home, “Gilbert & Sullivan did not write the greatest musicals. It’s just that they’ve been around a long time and the tunes are very catchy.” I bit my lip and refrained from launching into a discourse on the differences between musical comedy and operetta and between late 19th century Britain and early 21st century America. I did not have to tell him, because he already knows from countless car rides to Gilbert & Sullivan performances, that there would BE no musical theatre if it weren’t for Sir William Schwenk Gilbert and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan. He was trying to knock some sense into a woman who flew to San Francisco for the weekend last year to see Princess Ida. Really, I did. It’s pitiful.
With that disclaimer, what did I think of this performance of Pirates? It started off slowly and built momentum to a rousing finish. The plot is of absolutely no consequence. It is simply a frame on which Gilbert & Sullivan drape some of their most infectious and clever music and lyrics. Infectious and clever to people who like Gilbert & Sullivan. I fear that to many modern ears what passed for wit and music in 1879 sounds foreign and old-fashioned. If you aren’t insane like me and you don’t know all the words (there are a lot of them), what do you make of all of this? Unlike the rest of the Mac-Haydn season Pirates is not an American musical comedy.
In 1980, the New York Shakespeare Festival staged a production of Pirates directed by Wilford Leach and starring Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, George Rose, the amazing Tony Azito, and, as Ruth, British actress Patricia Routledge, best known as Hyacinth Bucket on the BritCom Keeping Up Appearances. The show first played outdoors at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park and then moved in December of 1980 to the Uris Theatre on Broadway, where Estelle Parsons took over for Routledge. It won Tony awards for Best Revival and Best Direction of a Musical, and Kline took home the Tony as Best Actor in a Musical.
Detested by many Gilbert & Sullivan purists, this production brought Pirates into the American musical mainstream. People think of it as a musical comedy when it isn’t. Leach went on to direct a charming film version of this production with all of the Broadway cast (with the exception of Estelle Parsons, who was replaced as Ruth by the great Angela Lansbury) so it is preserved for posterity. That is no doubt how lots of Graciela Daniele’s Broadway choreography, especially for the policemen’s chorus, made its way on to the Mac-Haydn stage.
I am a big fan of the Broadway version of Pirates and its film version, but the fact that anyone can go to the video store and watch it means that there are lots of little clone productions where actors work on playing Kevin Kline or Rex Smith, rather than either following the traditional Gilbertian staging or inventing their own fresh interpretations. In fact, when I walk in to a production of Pirates these days, I can tell as soon as the curtain goes up whether I am watching a clone of the Leach/Papp production by how the Pirate King is costumed. If his shirt is open it’s a good bet I’ll see tap dancing policemen and hear the Elvis-style ending to Oh Is There Not One Maiden Breast. If he’s dressed like Captain Hook I’m in for a by-the-book D’Oyly Carte rendition.
Despite the fact that Chad Heuschober’s pecs were in view, I was wondering if director Rusty Curcio wasn’t going the Gilbertian route when the song list in the program showed only songs actually written for Pirates. Leach added the patter song from Ruddigore and (on Broadway) Sorry Her Lot from H.M.S. Pinafore to the second act, and clone productions usually follow suit. Or was I actually going to witness a director taking his own path with the show, carving new territory? Perish the thought!
Curcio actually ended up treading a fairly safe middle ground. There are traditional elements to his Pirates and bits copied directly from Leach. This works pretty well, because he has some cast members actually capable of either doing a passable imitation of greatness or of being great in their own right.
Heuschober faces the thankless task of trying to mimic Kevin Kline’s performance as the Pirate King. Vocally he is fine, he may even be a better singer than Kline, but in the first act he was timid and disappointing. Thankfully by Act II he managed to unbuckle his swash (it must have been stuck) and proved highly entertaining for the remainder of the evening.
Jamie Price, who made his Mac-Haydn debut in Forum as the impossibly elderly Erronius, revealed himself to be equally adept at playing to type as the young and handsome Frederic. Frederic is quite a unique tenor role in the G&S canon because he gets a LOT of stage time. Price proved to be up to the task as a singer and as an actor. And he wasn’t doing a Rex Smith impression, he was Jamie Price playing Frederic and doing it very well.
Tiffany Thorton as Mabel and Michael Shiles as Major-General Stanley fall into the “great in their own right” category. The show is a little wobbly at the beginning of the first act, while Heuschober is still looking for his inner Errol Flynn and that dreadful business between Frederic and Ruth is being played out (more on that later), but as soon as Thornton makes her entrance you know everything is going to be all right. Beautiful and sassy, with a fabulous lyric soprano, Thornton owns the stage.
Shiles is all British blither in the coveted character role. In his jaunty red uniform and hat festooned with bouncy white feathers he is the very model of a modern Major-General. You just don’t stop smiling while he is on stage.
If you have not watched the Leach/Papp film of Pirates, or had the thrill of seeing him perform live, you have probably never heard of the late Tony Azito. The man was an amazing dancer, completely unique and inimitable. Tall and rail thin, he appeared to have no bones, his long narrow limbs swaying in serpentine motion to the music. He had a face only a mother could love and singing voice that sent even the most devoted mothers screaming from the room. I saw him on stage several times and there was something eerily inhuman about the man. There will never be another Tony Azito, and woe to the poor performer attempting to jam their bony feet into his rubbery boots. And yet Michael Hildebrandt, a young man of average height and weight with a full compliment of bones, a handsome face, and a pleasant singing voice does a remarkable job of simultaneously mimicking Azito and making the role of the Sergeant of Police his very own. He was just great and I am in awe of that backwards-headstand-flip-over-thingy he did. Wow!
There are two other soloists, Donald Panella, who is often off-key as in the small role of the pirate lieutenant, Samuel, and Monica M. Wemitt in the major role of Ruth. I did not like Wemitt in this role, but I should preface that by saying that Ruth is not an easy role to play, or a likeable one. Gilbert was notoriously hard on women “of a certain age” and very partial to attractive young ones. All the Savoy operas contain contralto roles that ridicule and demean middle-aged women, but none is harsher or more degrading than Ruth. I physically cringe every time I witness the Act I duet between Ruth and Frederic, no matter how beautifully it is sung or nobly it is performed, because it is just so awful to watch this woman grovel at the feet of this…this boy! And now that I myself am in my 47th year, well, don’t get me started!
The female chorus portrays Major-General Stanley’s large collection of beautiful daughters and/or wards, all of whom are under 21. The Mac-Haydn ladies do a nice job of providing strong choral singing and attractive and individualized performances. Renée Brna, Jenna Noel, and Megan Orlowski get solo bits, and all acquit themselves very nicely, especially Brna, a striking brunette with a gorgeous voice.
There are two male choruses in Pirates – pirates and policemen. These groups seem to follow their leaders. The pirate chorus gathers steam as Heuschober grows into his role, and the policemen consistently live up to Hildebrandt’s excellence.
There are several rousing numbers in Pirates and the Mac-Haydn cast does a fine job with them all. Aside from the excellent work of many of the soloists already mentioned, I was especially happy with the ensemble pieces Hail Poetry and Go, Ye Heroes. For my money there is just nothing better than a bunch of skilled singers belting out Gilbert & Sullivan!
Kevin Gleason has designed an interesting and atmospheric set – no small feat at the Mac - and a tiny pirate ship that glides (almost) effortlessly down the northern vomitorium. Alan Michael Smith has designed some handsome costumes. Shiles is notably dapper, but everyone looks good and seems able to execute even the most frenetic of Curcio’s choreography without bursting their buttons.
By the end of Act II the entire company is running amok at top speed and once again I salute the Mac-Haydn for pulling off such a scene in their confined quarters without any injury or loss of life. It gets quite hair-raising at times, and must take an incredible amount of timing and practice to make it all look so easy. (I wonder if the rehearsal room is littered with the bones of performers who couldn’t navigate the tight corners?)
This is a more than passable production of Pirates, and a fine introduction to Gilbert & Sullivan for youngsters, or anyone who has never had the pleasure.
The Pirates of Penzance runs through June 20 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004