Pirates of Penzance is a funny, lucid production
Dennis Yancey--The Tech
Frederic (Michael Goodwin) kisses Mabel (Mavie Marcos) after renouncing his commitment to the pirates of Penzance in favor of her love.
By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
The MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players
Directed by Andrew Sweet, Music directed by Alan Yost, Produced by Ezra Peisach and Teresa Hernandez, Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan Lyrics by W.S. Gilbert
With Michel Goodwin, Christopher M. Montgomery, Mavie Marcos, Andrew B. Sweet, Randi Kestin, Bill Schneider, and others
It is hard to pigeonhole Gilbert & Sullivan's works; one can use the terms opera, comic opera, operetta, and musical. The combination of music (arias, ballades, choruses, duets, and so on down the alphabet), sharp dialogue, highly quotable lyrics, a twisty plot, and a wealth of opportunities to create a visually arresting spectacle usually defies categorization; it also creates a challenge to produce. One or more elements are usually sacrificed to highlight the others. In his preliminary notes, The Pirates of Penzance stage director Andrew B. Sweet, an administrative assistant with the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature Administrative, writes, "My direction of this production seeks to emphasize, and not distract from, those two extraordinary qualities [music and language]" - and that is precisely what is delivered, in spades.
The plot, as usual for Gilbert, is quite complicated. It begins with the Dread Pirate Roberts - sorry, wrong story. It begins with famous pirates of Penzance celebrating the fact that their pirate apprentice Frederick has completed his training. Frederick, however, is not rejoicing, and very soon declares that he intends to quit the pirate band and devote himself completely to his former colleagues' extermination. During the following two hours, the plot rushes rapidly onward, touching on such diverse subjects as the differences between a pilot and a pirate, the importance of being an orphan, a fine distinction between a rifle and a javelin, how much one's life can be ruined by the Astronomer Royal, and, of course, true love.
The MITG&SP production excels in making this plot both highly lucid and very funny; actually, the word "lucid" applies to all aspects of the show. This is the first ever G&S production that I've heard where all the lyrics are understandable - and this is a very impressive achievement indeed. I usually regret missing a good deal of sung words and, therefore, it is highly commendable that this is not the case here.
Another excellent feature is the balance of the singers and the orchestra; the instruments do not overpower the actors, and the result is very good indeed. The orchestra is fine on its own - it is not perfectly in tune all the time, but it is still the best orchestra that I've heard at MITG&SP's shows - and combined with the singers it works wonders.
It also helps that Pirates has such an excellent cast, all down the line, both in terms of singing and acting. Michel Goodwin, as Frederic, not only excels in singing his melodramatic arias, but also gives his part a wickedly good twist - he's playing his romantic hero as a macho wimp. Mavie Marcos, playing Frederick's love interest Mabel, is an excellent singer in a very demanding part: her entrance, for example, is a parody of an operatic cadenza, with all the requisite passages up and down, and Marcos is note-perfect. Christopher M. Montgomery, as the Pirate King, and Sweet, doing double duty as a stage director and Major General Stanley, both possess excellent diction and create thoroughly charismatic characters. All other actors are on par as well.
However, what makes the show as enjoyable as it is are the number of throw-away details and gags, which are in plentiful supply. Major General's daughters (all eight of them!) have perfectly distinct personalities of their own; the pirates themselves, while very funny, still have the hint of menace; and some jokes are utterly inspired (I don't think I shall ever see a pirate funny as a tree). The director has obviously seen the exemplary 1982 film version (with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt), and several gestures and gags are borrowed from there - by far not the worst place to borrow from.
Technical credits are fine as well; the set is sparse but visually engaging, the costumes are appealing, and the lighting design, while occasionally distracting (for example, in the Frederic/Ruth duet in Act I), is generally interesting.
However, there is one thing sacrificed in this production of The Pirates of Penzance, and that is choreography. The staging is essentially static; and, while it works in several instances (for example, when the chorus of police sings, for five minutes or so, how they are going to fight the pirates, all the time not moving an inch), in some others it feels highly constricting. Both the Act I and Act II finales, "For Here's Love" duet between Frederick and Mabel, and "When a Felon's Not Engaged in His Employment," would have greatly benefited from some dancing. Obviously, Sweet realizes this; his own performance is very fluid. I just wish there were more of this in the rest of the show.
Overall, this is a very good production. It is consistently funny and is certain to provide two hours of theatrical enjoyment. To quote the Pirate King: what, we ask, is life without a touch of poetry in it?