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The Very Model of a Modern Play

MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players Present Pirates of Penzance

By Pey-Hua Hwang

Staff Writer

The Pirates of Penzance

La Sala de Puerto Rico

Nov. 21-23, 8 p.m.; Nov. 23-24, 2 p.m.

By William S. Gilbert and Arthur S. Sullivan

Stage Directed by Brian Bermack ’95

Vocal Directed by Jen Hazel

Orchestral Directed by Jimmy Y. Jia, G

Having never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan musical before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I walked into La Sala de Puerto Rico on Saturday night to see a performance of The Pirates of Penzance. All I knew was that the show was supposed to be a comic operetta and include plenty of G&S satirical style. The show was sold out and even though people who had reserved tickets showed up the suggested 20 minutes before the show, the 8 o’clock show didn’t begin until 8:20.

The orchestra conductor, Jimmy Y. Jia G, was the first to speak to the audience and instructed everyone to stand up and sing “God Save the Queen.” I was not surprised that everyone stood up, but I was surprised at the number of people who actually decided to sing. Jia then launched into an overture that was over eight minutes long, after which the first actors were finally seen on the stage.

The first act detailed the end of apprenticeship for Frederic (Stuart A. Stanton G), who was supposed to be a pilot’s apprentice but was wrongly apprenticed to a pirate through the poor hearing of his nursemaid Ruth (Sonya C. Tang ’04). Frederic then sees young women for the first time in his 21 years of life, falls in love, and vows to exterminate the pirates to whom he was once indentured.

This sort of wordplay, paradox, and running gag is found throughout the rest of the show. (For example, the pirates will not kill anyone who claims to be an orphan.)

The first act featured a mix of songs ranging from a drinking song, “Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry,” to a love song, “Poor Wand’ring One,” to pure comic silliness, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” With the exception of the love duets and the finale at the end of the act, most of the numbers were also either entirely female or male ensembles.

The singing abilities of the chorus as a whole were decent; however, the incredibly fast pace of the lyrics, volume of the orchestra, and lack of perfect diction made it very hard to understand what they were singing, especially in faster songs such as “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain.”

The romantic leads, Frederic and Mabel (Miranda E. Knutson ’06), were also hard to understand, but for different reasons. Knutson had amazing projection and high soprano range, but she seemed to have difficulty controlling pitch and tended to slide words together in favor of tone quality over clarity of lyrics. Stanton’s performance suffered from the opposite problem. He had good pitch and diction, but he lacked projection. Edith (Vanessa H. Quinlivan ’06) and Samuel (Jonathan E. Blum ’06) had the same projection problems.

In contrast, Major-General Stanley (Evan Xenakis) was delightfully pompous and pitiful, with all of his solos easy to understand.

After a 20-minute intermission, which seemed to this writer unnecessarily long for a two hour show which began almost a half-hour late, the second act began. It was decidedly more exciting than the first act, featuring an attack on a castle, love lost and found, the hardships of being a policeman, the joys of being a pirate, and lots of physical comedy. The singers seemed to have used the first act as a warm up, as the real performances kicked in during the second act.

The Sergeant and Policemen in “When a Felon’s Not Engaged,” were highly entertaining, especially when the bass section demonstrated just how low their voices could go. The Pirate King (Graham T. Wright G) and Ruth, the pirate maid, were also vivacious as they danced about and triumphantly announced to Frederic that he was born on the 29th of February during a leap year and therefore, much to his dismay, was actually still indentured to the pirates. “With Catlike Tread,” which involved the pirates singing about how quiet and stealthy they are while stomping heavily across the stage, was also a highlight of the evening.

The costumes were fairly simple but effective, and the set was just elaborate enough to allow for depth of movement on the stage and some comic moments involving disguises. The less-than-subtle beaver sculpture in the middle of the Castle Garden was also an amusing addition. The lighting was basic and there didn’t seem to be any changes in color swaths; nevertheless, the necessary characters were spotlighted when needed and kept the show pleasing to the eye.

What this show lacked in substance, it made up for in enthusiasm. I think I would have enjoyed the show more had I read the libretto first and been familiar with the songs so I could understand what the actors were singing. All in all, G&S succeeded in developing the character of a “Rollicking Band of Pirates” who still love Queen Victoria.