Guest review by Phillip Ayers
This summer’s Gilbert and Sullivan offering by the Mock’s Crest organization is "Pirates of Penzance" and the performance on Friday evening (June 16) at the Mago Hunt Theater was great fun. Somehow, G & S never fails to please and some would go so far as to say that an “acquired taste” really isn’t necessary to enjoy these operettas. Others would call the G & S “canon” operas but that might be cause for discussion or dispute. I won’t quibble in this review, simply because I thoroughly enjoyed it, having played “Samuel” in a performance in a local civic theater in Michigan in 1998. I fell in love with this work, having known only "Trial by Jury" and "HMS Pinafore" intimately enough to make a sound judgement.
Readers might be interested, as was I, about how the pirate-theme came to be so attractive to Gilbert and Sullivan. What I surmised is that plays and books about pirates were popular in the 19th century and that no doubt attracted them. There’s something splashy, swashbuckling, romantic, intriguing, and just plain enjoyable about piracy and its depiction. George Bernard Shaw believed, as a "Wikipedia" article states, that Gilbert drew on ideas in "Les Brigands" for his libretto, including the businesslike bandits and the bumbling police. But I was more interested to find in that same article that the work’s title is a “… multi-layered joke." On the one hand, Penzance was a docile seaside resort in 1879, and not the place where one would expect to encounter pirates. On the other hand, the title was also a jab at the theatrical ‘pirates’ who had staged unlicensed productions of "HMS Pinafore" in America.” Most of us are aware that satire played a huge role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, and it takes only a minimal amount of digging to find where the satire is aimed. It is worth mentioning that "Pirates" premiered, not in England, but in the USA, mainly to avoid any pirating of the music and libretto.
The story is simple and easy to follow. Frederick, a young pirate, is about to be out of his indentures as an apprentice, having reached his 21st birthday. Ruth, the “maid of all work,” reveals that she mistakenly apprenticed Fredrick to the group of pirates because she is hard of hearing. The music that surrounds this little bon mot is a play on “pilot,” (which Ruth thought she was getting her charge into) and “pirate.” Because he has never seen another woman, Frederick thinks Ruth is beautiful. The pirates know otherwise and suggest he take her with him. He also informs them that once released from servitude, because of his strong sense of duty, he will devote himself to their extermination. He also points out that the pirates are not very successful because of their softness for orphans. The word has got out and many ships they attack claim to be completely crewed by orphans.
The pirates, leave and Frederick spies a group of beautiful young girls approaching and realizes that Ruth has lied to him and sends her away. After initially hiding, Frederick reveals himself, to their shock and surprise. The eldest of these girls, who are sisters, Mabel, appears and chides the others for their lack of charity and offers Frederick pity. They instantly fall in love. Frederick warns them about the pirates being nearby, but before they can flee the pirates appear and capture all the girls, intending to marry them. Mabel warns the pirates that their father is Major General Stanley, who then arrives and introduces himself. He appeals to the pirates not to take his daughters who are his only comfort in his old age and then pretends to be an orphan. The softhearted pirates release the girls and make the Major General an honorary pirate.
Before giving the synopsis for Act 2, some comments on the production thus far might be in order. The playful nature of the characters is evident right at the outset with the pirates pouring sherry, funny asides, and one of the pirates heaving a barrel around the stage, generating much laughter from all corners of the hall. When the maidens appear, one in particular, played by Jack Wells, is swatting insects and desiring to get near to Frederick. Ruth, played by Rachelle Riehl, has terrific facial expressions and engaged the audience in her appearances. Her voice, a nice contralto, did have some passagio problems in higher registers. The ensemble is good, especially in relating to the audience. One could tell that there were really only one or two on stage who weren’t truly “present,” perhaps because they got lost in the patter-songs. The set is unremarkable, but adequate, so this allowed the drama and the music to hold forth without distraction. The University of Portland does these productions with professionals, semi-professionals, and university students.
The orchestra, behind a scrim which unfortunately didn’t allow them to acknowledge the applause at the end of their hard work, was very good, although the winds and brass overpowered at times the strings in the overture . There were some glitches, such as Frederick’s sash coming partially undone. And Joshua Randall’s (Frederick) eyes could be a play in themselves. It has been said that Mabel should always be played by a coloratura, and Cassi Q Kohl fulfilled that well in the quasi-Verdian passages. Kevin-Michael Moore, as the Major General, affected Robin Williams somewhat in his portrayal, with a nasal sound and wonderful little asides to the audience. Samuel Hawkins as Samuel affected an Irish accent and did it well. Swordsmanship by Bobby Winstead (The Pirate King) and others was well-executed and right in context.
In Gilbert and Sullivan, second acts often begin more “softly and quietly” than the first, and "Pirates" is no exception. This could produce somnolence in an audience, but here there was enough to keep everyone attentive. The act starts with the Major General, in a nightshirt, sitting in the ruined chapel on his estate. He is tortured by his conscience because of the lie he told about being an orphan. (And, in the first act, the play on “orphan” and “often” is hilariously done). The sergeant of the police and his corps appears and announce their readiness to arrest the pirates. The girls all express their admiration for the policemen. The choreography and comedic acumen of the actor/singers who play the policemen is superb and funny.
Frederick, left alone, encounters the Pirate King and Ruth who inform him of a paradox (another occasion for a musical word-play).They realize his apprenticeship was worded as to bind him until his 21st birthday and since he was born on February 29 he will not actually achieve that birthday until he is in his eighties. Because of his sense of duty, he tells the Pirate King about the General’s deception. Revenge will be swift and terrible. Frederick lets Mabel know of his change of fortune and she agrees to wait for him. She then steels herself to lead the police against the approaching pirate band. The police hide as the pirates appear. Major General Stanley appears, which causes the pirates to hide. The police hide as the pirates appear and when the Major General appears the pirates hide. The girls appear and the battle begins. The pirates easily subdue the police and the Pirate King urges the Major General to prepare for death. However, the Sergeant has a plan. He demands the pirates yield in Queen Victoria’s name. Here, as well as “Hail Poetry in the first act,” the chorus/ensemble shines and this is likened to a Mozart symphony in its sonority. Ruth appears and reveals that the pirates are all noblemen gone wrong. The Major General, waving the flag (always left to almost fall, but grabbed by someone), yields and love wins the day.
One skillfully written portion of the second act can easily be bungled, but these players did it flawlessly – and that is “With cat-like tread,” when the pirates and Samuel are going to burglarize the General. The police are hiding as the pirates enter, but not with cat-like tread: they’re very noisy! “Let’s vary piracee / With a little burglaree!” they sing. “Burglarious” tools are passed out among the pirates, including a “skeletonic key.”
The romantic leads are excellent in both their acting and singing. I noticed a few young boys two rows ahead of where I was seated, who at times were throwing their arms up in the air, either for exercise or in boredom in the love-scenes. Still, I was glad these kids were there and there was plenty of action for them to enjoy. They probably didn’t “get” the nuances, which are many in G & S: as in the Major General’s opening patter-song with the play on “hypotenuse,” and in the “Doctor of Divinity” portion which is really a choral patter-song and not easy to bring off.
The production runs five more times, so get a ticket and go see it before it ends on June 25th. You’ll be richly rewarded!