If you're of a mind to spend an evening with friend or significant other, June is the month to skip the flick, grab drinks and apps at, say, Robust, then zip over to the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.
Each of us is grateful for many things in life, and one of them ought to be that writer W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan teamed up in the later 19th century to perfect the comic operetta form a dozen times over.
The duo threw asunder social conventions with the same bravado as their countryman William Shakespeare had three centuries earlier. Without Gilbert's wit and wordplay, we'd have no Monty Python, no Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" routine — the Pirates equivalent is the mix-up of "orphan" and "often" — maybe even no Groucho Marx. Without Sullivan's mastery and mimicry of musical genres, we'd lack the great Chuck Jones and his immortal Bugs Bunny episode, "What's Opera, Doc?" In Pirates you hear Sullivan himself steal shamelessly but lovingly from other operatic staples, such as the anvil chorus from Giuseppe Verdi's 1853 Il trovatore.
The lineage that traces back to G&S is no less impressive than Rolling Stone magazine's famous 1970s genealogy of the origins of country rock. Which, weirdly, has relevance here, as one of those on the RS chart, Linda Ronstadt, had the female lead in Joseph Papp's production of Pirates in Central Park back in 1980 — a run so successful it moved to Broadway for 787 performances.
The story of Pirates is typical G&S — which is to say stereotyped castes and ineffectual institutions careening like billiard balls. When we meet Frederic (Matthew Plenk), he has apprenticed to a band of roguish but softhearted pirates for more than a decade, thanks to his hearing-challenged nursemaid Ruth (Maria Zifchak) thinking they were "pilots" (think of Gilda Radner's Emily Litella in the seminal years of Saturday Night Live). Now in his 21st year, Frederic is to be liberated, and he seeks a new life and a true love. He encounters a group of beautiful young women, all of them daughters of Major-General Stanley (Hugh Russell), falls for one of them, the alluring Mabel (Deanna Breiwick) and appears set for a piracy-free adulthood.
But a major setback to Frederic's liberation ensues. The pirates capture the ladies and a bumbling crew of policemen readies to do battle to defend the maidens' honor. In the end Gilbert presents his typically implausible plot twists to ensure a happily ever after for all involved.
The season's opening-night performance was a rousing good time, as evidenced by the hearty audience reaction. The pirates established the physical humor early on, with Bradley Smoak rendering a fabulously comical and engaging Pirate King. The staging is widely drawn in caricature as intended, so umbrella-toting maidens shuffling en masse and penguin-walking policemen are the order of the day.
Gilbert was fond of the patter song common to opera buffa and utilized by both Mozart and Rossini. His best and most famous example, "I am the very model of a modern Major General," was well turned by Russell, who delivered a reprise on steroids. Other humor highlights included the trio of Smoak, Plenk and Zifchak performing "Paradox," the tune that explains why Frederic's emancipation is in jeopardy; and the ironically stomping pirates in "With catlike tread, upon our prey we steal."
Most voices proved exceptional, both in solo and ensemble. Plenk's Frederic has a strong and handsome tenor and you wish Mabel had more turns to showcase the soprano Breiwick shared as Johanna last year in Sweeney Todd. A few small intonation missteps issued from Jaime Korkos' Edith early on, but she quickly rallied to re-win the day.
Ryan McAdams ably directed the St. Louis Symphony members, Séan Curran's stage direction provided the kind of goofy physicality that G&S demands and James Schuette's sets met or exceeded OSTL's high standards. The only distraction — and a minor one at that — was the starlit backdrop for Act Two, which caused a tinge of unnecessary glare.
G&S operetta sightings are a dime a dozen, and often worth half that when you're talking ticket price. The chance to see a topnotch production such as this one is rare indeed. If you're too slow on the uptake, your date'll go with someone else and you'll have only yourself to blame.
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