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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Pirates of Penzance
The Pirates have landed in Long Beach and what Gilbert and Sullivan called a comic opera is given a crisp rollicking staging by director Steven Glaudini for Musical Theatre West. The Carpenter Performing Arts Center, named for singers Richard and Karen Carpenter, its patrons, is a magnificent performing space, taking full advantage of the sets and costumes provided by Edmonton Opera.
The production is headlined by Rex Smith, who played Frederic in the 1981 production at the Public Theatre as well as the movie version. He's now grown into the role of the Pirate King, played then by Kevin Kline. Smith has the imposing physicality to play King and does rascally rogue to a turn. The director gives a nod to Smith's best-selling recording career by having him use his rapier as a microphone.
Pirates pokes fun at the staid and proper seaside town of Penzance with a frothy plot involving young Frederic, mistakenly apprenticed to the pirates by his nursemaid Ruth; his desire to go straight and turn them in; his love affair with Mabel and her numerous sisters, all daughters of Major-General Stanley, who is, in the words of one of the show's most famous songs, "the very model of a modern major-general." This gives the writers a chance to mock the military, duty, and the desire for respectability, turning those concepts on their heads and giving rise to the description "topsy-turvy", also the title of a wonderful 2000 film about the pair.
The cast does well with quick convoluted verse patterns, which must be delivered with precise diction, humor and often while dancing or prancing at the same time. As Frederic, Kristofer McNeeley is dashing, diffident and vocally strong. Despite nasal strain in her upper register, soprano Jennifer Malenke is a vivacious and beautiful Mabel. Norman Large is bluff, funny and superbly realizes the Major-General. Mary Gordon Murray is in fine vocal form and comic fettle as Ruth, the 47-year-old nursemaid whose love is spurned by Frederic but who gets her own back in Act II by appearing in superb scarlet pirate togs to embark on a new career. With gleeful comic timing, Paul Clausen makes the Sergeant of Police a rubber-limbed Charley Chaplinesque clown.
Though rousing choruses and clever patter songs are G&S hallmarks, it's the intricate verse patterns and word puns with which they clothe their satiric expose of hypocrisy and corruption that make these comic operas inimitable in every generation. Though the team turned out some 13 of them over a 20-year period, Pirates is the one most frequently done since D'Oyly Carte, founded in 1876 to produce them, closed their doors. (Editor's Note: This past season alone saw a Pirates at the NYCity Opera, at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey, not to mention a Yiddish version). It's a shame. I still have vivid memories of their last tour of The Mikado which has as many mid-act show-stoppers as Jersey Boys. Would that some piratical producers would mine this treasure trove more often!
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater