13 June 2009: Gilbert and Sullivan and Greenberg and Benjamin and Daniel, Pirates (or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plundered)

Matinee. Original book and lyrics by W. S. Gilbert. Original music by Arthur Sullivan. Conceived by Gordon Greenberg, Nell Benjamin, and John Daniel. Additional book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. Music supervision and arrangements by John McDaniel. Choreography by Denis Jones. Orchestrations by Dan DeLange. Directed by Gordon Greenberg. Huntington Theatre Company. Originally produced by Goodspeed Opera House; subsequently produced by Paper Mill Playhouse.

I went to see this spoof of The Pirates of Penzance not knowing whether I would hate it or love it. I ended up loving it — actually, I loved it from the very first moment. This G&S opera has been made into a marvelous take-off from the original. At the same time, it becomes its very own thing, a wonderful combination of comic opera, modern musical theater, and (I’m told) a series of four films by Disney called Pirates of the Caribbean. I did a little Googling on this title and looked at one or two trailers; as far as I can see, it is vintage Disney stuff, full of first-rate camerawork and lacking even the smallest of ideas. But I saw enough to see that the adapters of this original comic opera must have had the kind of audience in mind that would go to see this Disney series, and yet would also include in their auditorium plenty of seats for people who have seen, sung, and know by heart the big repertoire of comic opera produced by Gilbert and Sullivan, still alive and well upwards of 125 years after they first reached the stage. That’s a nice trick, if you can do it, to put together an adaptation of a well-known favorite that appeals to and ends up mightily pleasing a broad and varied audience. You can understand why the Huntington management decided to bring this crowd-pleaser to Boston. I haven’t looked at any of the reviews, but I suspect that they have a lot of high praise in them for the quality of this production and also for the way it appeals to and satisfies its audience.

In this production the Pirate King, played with wonderful sangfroid by Steve Kazee, is perhaps done more in the spirit of the modern film hero, or villain-hero, of popular action films than the villain-hero of G. & S. opera. Somehow that didn’t matter. The Pirate King’s accomplices all look the part of pirates, some with bandannas wrapped around their heads, and the actors (let’s call them actor-singers) are as expert at dancing and gymnastics as they are at singing. Vocally, perhaps the high point of the first act was the rousing chorus of “Hail, Poetry” that brings the proceedings for the moment to a complete stop.

There is a lot of updating of Victorian ideas and values in this musical version of Pirates. The first one we notice, perhaps, is that the character of Ruth is dressed not in period costume but in much abbreviated girl-pirate clothing, of the sort that Oscar Wilde, in quite another context, described as beginning too late and ending too soon. This costume comes complete with net stockings, high pirate boots, and a white drawstring bodice tastefully left slightly open. This gives one an idea of what to expect through the entire opera: strong hints of period but more fundamentally generalized “historical garb.” When the women’s chorus comes on they are wearing period costume as well; but they soon remove their skirts and bodices, to reveal delicious though chaste corsets and pantaloons. This is generalized period women’s underwear, which we associate with Victorian women and which covers much more than the underwear for sale in that sign-of-the-times boutique called “Victoria’s Secret” (one wonders how many women who shop there know the reference). But by this time we are reminded once again, having read this in the program before the show began, that the setting has been moved back to a period called “Queen Anne’s War.” A Google query revealed that this war was a conflict between England and France beginning in 1702 and going on for ten or eleven years. And I should have explained also that the setting is that war in the Caribbean. As for pirate dress, of course it is the same in film, song, story, and opera. I’m still not sure what advantage there was in moving the period of the show back to the beginning of the eighteenth century, except for finding a way to appeal to the broad audience of this and other similar films. It does seem likely that the Disney film is set in that period (or in the very loose equivalent of the Hollywood version of that period) and that this production is modeling itself partly on that film. So be it.

In other words, what we have is a version of The Pirates of Penzance brought up to date in such a way that a modern popular audience can understand it completely. One way of thinking about this is that it rescues the G. & S. opera from what one of the originators of this updating says is a reduction of what was once popular entertainment to what is now uppercrust Masterpiece Theatre. It is now back in the popular realm, without a doubt. Well, you either have to take it for what it is and enjoy it thoroughly for that, or declare yourself to be not in the vein and head for your television set at nine o’clock on a Sunday night. Fortunately for all of us, this was very, very easy to enjoy. Partly because it was so delicious, scenically speaking.

Among the most enjoyable things of all one must list the character of Major General Stanley, as played with great aplomb by Ed Dixon. Dixon is a large, roly-poly sort of man, here wearing a full periwig, with a deep bass voice but also with a wide range, and absolutely spot-on diction. In true G. & S. form, he comes on and tells us who he is: “I am the very model of a modern Major-General,” he begins. The first verse as just what Gilbert wrote. The second verse is not Gilbert’s, but Nell Benjamin’s doing; so was the third verse, very much updated, with plenty of comments on contemporary society. You could understand every word. The audience absolutely loved it, and although no one actually shouted out “Encore,” it was clear they wanted one. Dixon supplied it by doing the first verse again at double speed! One of the loudest rounds of applause in the whole show was the result.

The Frederic, Anderson Davis, was perfectly cast as the “slave of duty.” He looked the part — forlorn, deeply earnest, tousel-headed, angular and a bit uncoordinated — and these qualities were coupled with a fine, powerful yet sweet voice and a singing style that somehow managed to combine elements of Elvis Presley’s soul-searching, the vibrato-less push-the-high-note quality of the successful Andrew Lloyd Webber tenor, and a winning lightness and clarity. And he was a perfect foil for the Mabel, Farah Alvin, a dark-haired, forthright, clear-voiced soprano, who could handle the high notes and the way Sullivan mocks the coloratura soprano, but who also could embody something that the adapters introduced into the more straightforwardly Victorian concept of the eligible young woman: namely, the idea that Mabel is really, really smart, a fact that drives her father, the Major General, to distraction. The costume designer, David C. Woolard, must have had an especially fine time designing Mabel’s costume. She arrived, by the way, lowered in the basket of a balloon, or so it seemed, which she managed by controlling a chain pulley. When she reached the ground and opened the door to the basket, we saw that she was costumed in the dress of a Victorian lady explorer, complete with a birdcage containing a small parakeet strapped onto her back. Gilbert makes Mabel a young woman in control, a woman of independent mind, a possessor of a kind of assertiveness, within good Victorian limits; the adapters make her much more of a patient feminist, and they interpolate a brief sequence of dialogue in which Frederic confides in her that he really likes smart women (it’s a failing of his). Hey, are we in the early twenty-first century, or not? But that’s not to say that her instincts somehow disqualify her from being the proper, happily awaited mate for a fellow like Frederic, if only he can somehow be freed from his slavery to the cause, so dear to the hearts of Victorians, of duty. This is after all the land of topsy-turvy, where black is white and all else is likewise inverted and turned upside down and inside out, as Gilbert himself once dreamed.

There is a large “home-free”quality to this idea, and there is finally a certain sentimentality in all of it (no news to us, really): that is, Gilbert constructs his world so that he, and we, get the benefit of the satirical thrusts without in the long run having to pay for them. And so Mabel can have her feminist moments and still not lose out on winning the hero. This is after all musical theater, whether Victorian, early Queen Anne, or post-George W. Bush. (Mabel’s costume, by the way, has nothing whatever to do with the world of Queen Anne; it is high Victorian in shape and ethos.)

I should explain that the adaptation of Pirates has been sufficiently free-wheeling to include a strong element from another G&S opera, Ruddigore: the idea of the curse. What is a pirate story without a curse, the adaptors ask? They answer the question themselves by providing one, voiced by the Pirate King to his feckless comrades, who tend to forget about this sort of concept-thing. It seems finally gratuitous, and this is the one point on which I cavil, a bit, and declare myself a relative purist: if you’re going to adapt Pirates, adapt Pirates, and maintain the integrity of the source by not muddying the artistic waters with elements of something else.

But the production is what it is, finally, and cavilling doesn’t last forever in the face of such inspired silliness. It’s clear, also, that this production has had two other chances to perfect itself, one at the Goodspeed Opera House and another at the Papermill Playhouse. By the time it reached the Huntington Theater, it evidently had been perfected down to the last detail. Sometimes it happens that by the time a production reaches its third venue it is “perfect” (a fact commonly illustrated by road shows) but also lifeless. Not this production. The timing was crisp and immaculate from beginning to end; at the same time it was clear that these performers were having a marvelous time presenting this show. There is a wonderful vitality in this production, and this spirit held a contagious quality for the audience that was absolutely irresistible. All through it, you could pick up little bits and pieces of brilliance in comments, in timing, in changes of lyrics to reflect changes in society, and so forth. (It proved to be one of the few productions I would have, if I could, revisited as soon as possible after the first encounter.) At the same time, it was clear that this particular point in current life is just the right time to do a spoof of an opera that itself is still current, viable, and pointed, with regard to what is happening in our own world at large, where, as one of the makers of this show commented, it is difficult to tell the difference between a pirate king and a hedge fund manager.

This is the old, and now timeless, spirit first memorably embodied in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. This current Pirates does not have either the bite or the wit of Gay’s classic, but it is definitely in the same recognizable vein, one it shares with the entire Gilbertian corpus when he teamed up with Sullivan.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book