By: Paulanne Simmons
April 12, 2022: A Chorus Line famously tells us that everything done in theater is what we do “for love.” Certainly, the productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan Players prove this point. Their new offering, The Pirates Penzance or the Slave of Duty, is the latest evidence. The production is directed by Albert Bergeret, who is also the founder, artistic director and general manager of the company. His enthusiasm seems to have infected everyone else working on this show.
Dramatist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan were two quintessentially Victorian talents who together created comic operas that poke fun at other quintessentially Victorian people. They do this whether the opera is set in Japan (The Mikado), an imaginary land where a princess reigns (Princess Ida) or a rocky seashore on the coast of Cornwall, the romantic setting for The Pirates of Penzance. The true setting, however, is always Victorian England. Here Gilbert and Sullivan target Victorian prudery, the military, nobility, nationalism, foolish love, ineffective police and possibly a lot more lost to the 21st century mentality.
But the duo’s critical eye was also gentle and joking. Thus, Gilbert filled his lyrics with puns and three-syllable rhymes, while writing what might be the world’s first rap song, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” It has been a tour-de-force for anyone playing Major General Stanley over the decades and remained so for James Mills today. And Sullivan gave his performers immortal songs with tricky rhythms and beautiful melodies, many of which appear in The Pirates of Penzance: “With Cat-like Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal,” “Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast?” “When a Felon’s Not Engaged in His Employment.”
Bergeret has pulled out all the stops for this Pirates of Penzance. The production is filled with high jinks, pratfalls, winks and knowing nods. The cast* is superb, joyously taking up the gauntlet, from Alex Corson as the gallant Frederic, the unwilling pirate who is a slave to duty, to Matthew Wages as the Pirate King, who, along with all his men, has a soft-spot for orphans; from Sarah Caldwell Smith as Mabel, the innocent maiden who falls in love with Frederic to Caitlin Burke who plays Ruth, Frederic’s matronly and amorous nurse, whose confusing of “pirate” and “pilot” sets the comedy in motion.
There’s no skimping on the visual elements here. Quinto Ott and Gail Wofford’s costumes would be the envy of any Broadway production. And Benjamin Weill’s lighting takes us from the maiden sisters skipping merrily in the sun to their father, the Major General, brooding in the night over the graves of the purchased ancestors he betrayed when he said he was an orphan.
The Pirates of Penzance was the only Gilbert and Sullivan opera to have its official premiere in the United States. This may have been primarily because the creative duo wanted to keep the profits for themselves rather than losing them to another kind of pirate who produced their work and paid no royalties. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasure to see such love poured into a work Gilbert and Sullivan gave to us first.
The cast reviewed performed on April 10.
The Pirates of Penzance ran at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College April 8 – 10.