Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Pirates"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Larry Stark


Conceived by Gordon Greenberg, Nell Benjamin, & John McDaniel,
Book & Lyrics by W. S. Gilbert
Additional Book & Lyrics by Nell Benjamin
Music by Arthur S. Sullivan
Music Supervision & Arrangements by John McDaniel
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Choreographed by Denis Jones
Musical Direction by F. Wade Russo

Dance Captain Chris Messina
Scenic Design by Rob Bissinger
Lighting design by Jeff Croiter
Costume Design by David C. Woolard
Sound Design Drew Levy & Tony Smolenski IV
Orchestrations by Dan DeLange
Fight Direction by Michael Rossmy
Props Mistress Elizabeth Bean
Production Stage Manager Gail P. Luna
Stage Manager Carola Morrone

Pirate King....Steve Kazee
Samuel......Caesar Samayoa
Frederick...Anderson Davis
Ruth..........Cady Huffman
Mabel..........Farah Alvin
Sergeant...Mel Johnson Jr.
Major General.....Ed Dixon
Wes Hart, Joel Perez, Michael Rossmy, Dave Schoonover, Victor Wisehart
Sam Kiernan, Douglas Lyons, Chris Messina, Christopher Sergeef
Kristen Sergeant, Julia Osborne, Sarah Ziegler, Erica Spyres, Brittney A. Morello, Krista Buccellato

Conductor...................F. Wade Russo
Clarinet, Flute, Piccolo......Rod Ferland
Flute, Clarinet.................Bill Vint
Clarinet, Bass Clarinet...Peter Cokkinias
Drums, Percussion.........Doug Lippencott
Keyboard.......................Janet Roma
Keyboard....................F. Wade Russo

Back in my late-middle youth I used to visit productions by MIT's G&S group ("D'Oyle Carte is holy writ!") in Kresge Under and those of the HG & SP ("F'God's sake Make It NEW!") in Agassiz Theatre. Guess which ones I preferred?

After seeing the Huntington production of "Pirates! or Gilbert And Sullivan Plundered" I looked up Louise Kennedy's Boston GLOBE review to find out what the fuss was all about. (Read it yourself; the picture above it is a better review than the text.) Apparently the poor lady was offended that the rest of the press-night audience (those I call "the usual suspects") had much more fun than she did. To my eye, she had her head wedged so far up her own opinion she could see neither the stunning theatrical triumph nor its occasional shortcomings for what they were. But then, what's new?

This show is incredibly self-aware --- good G&S always is. It's the kind of acting that says to its audience "Watch what I'm going to do now!" Without impeccable performance this is called "indicating" but the vigor, precision and concentration with which this cast works is truly astonishing. Choreographer Denis Jones and his slave-driving Dance Captain Chris Messina fill Rob Bissinger's elaborate sets with bodies hurtling in all directions, often in unison. It's astonishing to see six or sometimes a dozen choristers all identically moving ankles, knees, elbows, wrists and fingers in intricately complicated patterns and rigid unison --- and singing as they do it! --- and then, on the next chorus, doing it yet again, only faster. When the pirates call for grog a dozen pewter cups get flung one by one to each, then tossed, high in the air, to new people in two's and threes and dozens, yet every cup is caught in time with the music. Later they perform the same trick with pillows (or are they sacks of coffee-beans), and all at a furious pace. Pirates slither across the stage or get tossed about like those pillows, but inside the most chaotic of brangles Director Gordon Greenberg keeps everything to a breakneck order.

This is a sort of G&S frappe. Nell Benjamin takes a machete to the plot, mixes songs (you can hear the purists nudging non-cognoscenti to pontificate "Oh, this one's from..."), and adds new lyrics that perfectly match the originals in rhyhtm and style and contemporary comment. (Gilbert himself delighted in inserting topical rewrites to songs during their original productions.) In a sense then audiences get the best of both worlds --- a completely new and original show bristling with familiar chestnuts you can sing-a-long to (though never so well).

Shortcomings? Oh sure --- though none so deserving of the Kennedy scorn. All the sophomoric conundrums (How old is a boy born on 29 Feb?) and exaggerated sillinesses of G&S are there; characters are still cardboard and their heads empty and everything is a triumph of style over substance. Steve Kazee's Pirate King's over-suave sly hauteur and Farah Alvin's Maybel's scientific feminism both seem to be flown in from another planet. Anderson Davis' young Frederic is childishly devoted to duty yet projects a pelvic anticipation to his melismatic infatuation with the word "love". Cady Huffman's Ruth, in bustier and boots and little else, suggests a cabin-boy's past whenever virginity rears its head. And Ed Dixon's Major General stops the show even before he haughtily begins his patter-song. Mel Johnson Jr.'s Sergeant and his policemen (who'd prefer to be a marching-band) are contemptible caricatures of Caribbean Blacks --- but when they occasionally break into calypso rhythms, W. S. Gilbert's bouncy rhymes fit in perfectly.

Perhaps the raucous press-night crowd, full of clacks and critics and paper and former Huntington actors, were indeed eagerly over-enthusiastic. However, this professional and thoroughly disciplined cast has learned since then to earn every smile, every giggle and guffaw and every knowing-glance as the audience "gets" what Louise Kennedy didn't. And next year, when her colleagues consider giving this Huntington smash Norton Awards in several categories, I hope she will have the grace to acquiesce.

"Pirates! or, Gilbert And Sullivan Plunder'd" (15 May - 14 June)
Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 266-0800

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