Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Pirates of Penzance"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


libretto by W. S. Gilbert; composed by Arthur Sullivan

directed by Stephen Quint

Richard, The Pirate King…..Eugene Summers (debut)
Samuel (his Lieutenant)…..Sumner Thompson (debut)
Frederic (a Pirate Apprentice)…..Chad Freeburg (debut)
Major-General Stanley…..Stephen Quint (debut)
Edward, Sergeant of Police…..Drew Poling
Mabel (General Stanley’s youngest daughter)…..Anne Harley (debut)
Kate (General Stanley’s daughter)…..Tambre Tarleton
Edith (General Stanley’s daughter)…..Wendy Bryn Harmer
Isabel (General Stanley’s daughter)…..Emily Browder
Ruth (A Piratical Maid-of-All-Work)…..Anna Maria Silvestri

Ensemble…..Glorivy Arroyo (debut); Benjamin Cole (debut); David M. Cushing; Heather Diaforli (debut); Jena Eison; Julie Anne Fay; Erik Gullickson (debut); Daniel A. Hershey (Frederic understudy); Jane Leikin; Thomas Oesterling; Gabriel Ostriker; Alexander Prokhorov; Courtney Schowalter (Mabel understudy); Bronwyn Stayoch (debut); Antony Zwerdling (debut).

The holiday season usually starts with Scrooges and Nutcrackers; for me, this year’s festivities began with Boston Academy of Music’s wonderful production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s evergreen THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. This burlesque about a Slave of Duty --- one Frederic, torn between his being a pirate apprentice and his love for the proper Mabel, a Major-General’s daughter --- will have closed by the time you read this, but if you were fortunate to have seen it, you should look back on it with a smile as will I.

Performing the G & S canon is tricky: near-operatic voices are required, along with a musical comedy temperament to make it all sparkle --- and the balance between substance and frivolity is so important! Play G & S too solid and they’re incredibly dull; play it too light and they end up as mincing camp --- no wonder many people dislike these operas as many do fruitcake; I say, if you hate either it’s because you’ve never tasted them properly prepared. BAM’s PIRATES was a near-perfect show --- and the opening night audience, whatever their attitude towards G & S, seemed to agree with me. Had fruitcake been served during intermission, they may have happily devoured that, too.

“Near-perfect”, mind you --- Anna Maria Silvestri started off amusingly as Ruth, the lusty, lovelorn pirate maid, but was allowed/encouraged to slide into howling caricature (as did the Fairy Queen in the Huntington’s production of IOLANTHE about seven years ago), and the ensemble had many added-in bits that simply did not work, the most distracting being Frederic (stage left) trying to administer CPR on a supine Mabel (passed out from her coloratura!) while her sisters (stage right) prettily chirped “How beautifully blue the sky,” etc. If this and similar bits stuck out with dayglo clarity, it is because director/actor Stephen Quint otherwise provided just the right tone, texture and deftness to much of this PIRATES, letting the humor and charm bubble out of Gilbert’s wit and Sullivan’s music --- with each bit, I imagined Mr. Quint popping up to wave at us and say, “Hello! I’m the director!” Happily, these were mere puckers, not rends, in the fabric and did not distract too, too much from the evening’s enjoyment --- and there was plenty to enjoy.

What beautiful singing came out of this production! First there were the male and female choruses, cast from strength --- the ensemble for “Hail, Poetry!” was particularly breathtaking. The men shouldered the brunt of Mr. Quint’s bits, becoming rather boobish pirates and policemen; the women came off much better and were amusingly pert and Victorian --- they also had the better bits: for example, during the ensemble “Here’s a first rate opportunity”, the Pirate King seized Edith and bent her backwards for the men’s chorus; for the women’s retort, Edith reversed positions with him --- a hilarious tableau.

Sumner Thompson sang a pleasing, sturdy Samuel, the Pirate Lieutenant --- and if I single out this minor role, it goes to show the care and detail that Mr. Quint --- a G & S veteran himself --- took in selecting his cast for their acting as well as their singing. There were many BAM debuts on Opening Night and yet all performed as if they’d been together for years. Chad Freeburg turned in the most Gilbertian performance as young Frederic, playing him as the noblest of fools, with deadpan tongue in cheek; Anne Harley (Mabel) tossed off the coloratura of “Poor Wandering One” with the greatest of ease (pity she had to “faint” afterwards); Eugene Summers’ Pirate King was a clown in the Kevin Kline mould but his voice, it was, it was a glorious thing; and Drew Poling made an endearing, mock-heroic Sergeant of Police. Mr. Quint was a bit too adorable as Major-General Stanley but at least mugged in Gilbertian fashion; I didn’t mind his turning “Sighing Softly” into a Swan Lake pas de deux between himself and a policeman --- I always found that number a bore, put in to give the M-G a second solo. Gil Rose drew a light, crisp sound from the orchestra and Laura McPherson came up with two colorful storybook sets, punched into three-dimensionality by Christopher Ostrom’s lighting.

I can think of no better Christmas gift this year than a CD of this sterling cast: it would be far superior than the 1981 Broadway version and would rival the numerous D’Oyly Carte recordings --- truly. When may I expect my copy, please?

"The Pirates of Penzance" (29 November-1 December)
The Blackman Theatre at Northeastern University, 360 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 242-7311

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