REVIEW: The Pirates of Penzance (Light Opera Works)

| December 28, 2009 | 3 Comments

Rollicking fun, if not quite a glorious thing

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Light Opera Works presents

The Pirates of Penzance
By W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed and choreographed by
Rudy Hogenmiller
Through Jan. 3 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One of the few professional Chicago companies to put on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, Light Opera Works typically mounts one of their operettas each year, with just eight performances. This year, it’s a solid version of The Pirates of Penzance, one of the duo’s most popular comic operas, full of witty lines and catchy music.

To know W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan is to love them. Funny and musically brilliant, every one of their collaborations is a delight.

It’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from a well-done production of almost any of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas without wanting to see more. Maybe it’s the "opera" in "comic opera" that scares people off. Maybe it’s the technical difficulty and expense of producing shows that require skilled orchestras and large, talented choruses. Whatever it is, it’s rare that Chicagoans get to see these classics done with the splendor they deserve.

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Light Opera Works does a satisfying but not thrilling job of "Pirates," one of the funniest and most timeless of the G&S canon. Its characteristically silly plot revolves around Frederic, an apprentice pirate. Meant to be articled to a ship’s pilot, he was instead mistakenly indentured to a pirate by his hard-of-hearing nursery maid. The dutiful young man has served diligently in the rather soft-hearted pirate band, but now his term of service is up, and he means to dedicate himself to wiping out his former comrades.

He becomes more determined after he meets Major-General Stanley’s bevy of beautiful daughters, whom the lovelorn pirate crew tries to kidnap, and falls in love with the intrepid Mabel. But then, the pirate king points out a technicality that means Frederic’s contract to the pirates is still in force. Delightful songs and comic shenanigans ensue.

A highlight of the production, bass-baritone Michael Cavalieri looks too amiable to be a Pirate King, but he gives us a glorious "Oh, better far to live and die." Musical theater veteran James Harms is the very model of a Major-General Stanley, effortlessly delivering the centerpiece patter song in fine comic style.

As in many productions, this crowd-pleaser gets a speeded-up reprise, although this one rather insults audiences. It’s usual to hint the meaning of the couplet, "In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy — / You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee," by having the singers mime riding horseback on the final rhyme, but when Harms repeats the line, he sings, "never sat a horse" — as if we were too dumb to get it the first time.

Other than that, Director Rudy Hogenmiller steers mercifully clear of modernizing, while aiming at very broad comedy. The police force, for instance, comes straight out of the Keystone Kops. Bass Frank M. DeVincentis, both vocally and comically perfect as the Sergeant of Police, does a bang-up job with "When a felon’s not engaged in his employment."

Tenor Matthew Giebel brings an excellent voice to Frederic. As Mabel, Alicia Berneche trills her way through "Poor wandering one!" and "Stay, Frederic, stay!" at high coloratura pitch. All of the women sound a bit shrill, even the dashing Barbara Landis in the contralto role of Ruth, Frederic’s nurse turned piratical maid of all work.

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Conductor Roger L. Bingaman’s largely workmanlike musical direction stumbles here and there. The orchestra doesn’t excite, and harmonizing, in songs like "When you had left our pirate fold," sung by Landis, Giebel and Cavalieri, isn’t all that it could be. The choristers do fine work, though, with particularly clear enunciation in numbers like "How beautifully blue the sky."

Hogenmiller’s dance sequences sometimes seem cluttered, but that only adds to the fun. Jill Van Brussel‘s costumes shine, particularly the colorful pirates’ garb. Tom Burch‘s cut-out sets neither add much nor detract.

Overall, the flaws of this production are far outweighed by its successes, together with the sheer brilliance of the original score and script. If it’s not the glittering production that Gilbert and Sullivan fans yearn for, it’s still loads of fun and good enough to inspire G&S newcomers to want more.

Are you listening, Chicago thespians?

Rating: ★★★

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Category: 2009 Reviews, Leah A. Zeldes, Light Opera Works, Northwestern University

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