January 14, 2004: Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance

Savoy Theatre. Matinee. Directed by Steven Dexter. Musical Supervision and arrangements by John Rigby

A production calculated — if there were really any calculation behind this guileless Weber-ized version of the old G & S classic — to make tradition-minded G & S stalwarts stomp out of the theatre in high dudgeon. The key to understanding what’s going on here is to observe that the Savoy has Pirates and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan playing on alternate days, with much if not all of the same cast. Anthony Head is Captain Hook in the Barrie play and, despite his inability to sing beyond the standard of provincial karaoke, the pirate King in Pirates, he seems more than a little embarrassed by the whole thing, but he soldiers on. Probably it pays well, and that’s the consolation. I haven’t seen the Peter Pan and would not waste good money on a ticket to it. What Dexter and Rigby have together conspired to do, as Dexter ingenuously explains in his program note (for the privilege of reading which I paid the current obligatory fee of £3.00), he had been taken to see G & S operas as a boy and now, grown up, thinks they need to be brought into our own place and time — not really jazzed up, mind you just … Well, jazzed up.

Fifteen seconds into the overture I knew what was up; and I quickly became, as an old theatre companion once observed, a black hole of despond, sucking all bright and cheerful things into my bottomless trough. Actually, I cheered up a little in the course of Act I, enough to stifle my impulse to leave at intermission. It actually got better as it went along, due largely to the fact that, even when re-orchestrated by someone who probably knew Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat by heart and had spent plentiful time trying out various settings on his electronic keyboard, Sullivan’s music is just plain delightful. There are some things you cannot kill, and Sullivan at his best is one of them.

The fiction that Dexter makes up to give some coherence to his unwitting travesty of Pirates is that we are seeing a series of variety acts — “The Pirates of Penzance,” “Major General Stanley’s Daughters” — you get the idea. The plot meanders from on stage to backstage and on again, quite untroubled by fictional inconsistencies. The said daughters are a vaudeville act: they sing in high, little-girl voices and remove a certain amount of clothing as they sing, down to corsets and pantaloons (Dexter said he thought it was okay to introduce a little sexiness here and there). The assistant who gathers up the clothing as it falls turns out to be — Mabel! Did you guess it? I have to admit I didn’t, and was looking all over for her. There she was all along, disguised as faux-homely in black-rimmed glasses — which she perversely keeps on through the entire show (this is the popular fiction of the girl-next-door, no different from you and me, who gets lucky and falls in love with the hunk, Frederic).

It gets tedious to follow the radical approach through to its conclusion. Suffice it to say that Dexter brings the hoary old opera into the land of the living. Of course, it’s not going to be “Pirates, now and forever.” There are limits, after all, to what you can do to update a work so completely out of date as an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. They do what they can. In the process, Dexter fails to do what, to my mind, might have brought his monstrous creature to life — namely, to take the love of Frederic and Mabel seriously and let the performers act that out. But, then, the Mabel, Elin Wyn Lewis, is very young, just out of the Royal Academy of Music and, having trained as a classical singer at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, realized the limitations of her voice and settled for the Musical Theatre course at RAM. She is pleasant, and she has the coloratura required for Mabel, but she lacks charisma and will not go far without some real acting lessons. The Frederic, Hadley Fraser, has a pleasant musical voice, but is by no means the tenor Sullivan was writing for (as the avoidance of all the high notes makes clear). He has presence and good timing and ability to dance, and he may survive. No time to coach them in realizing truthful passion on the vaudeville stage, after all. A few incidental pleasures — If you’re going to do Pirates in this style you might as well have an old hand like Jack Chissick as the Major General; he can ham it up with the best of them and be ludicrous and right in time to the music at once, with perfect diction in the patter song. He turns out to be the very model of a vaudeville major general, turning a completely deaf ear to Gilbert’s advice to the players of Engaged, but working in his own well-disciplined way through the manifest absurdities of the role. David Burt is a stalwart Sergeant of Police who can march, in that pompous military style, leading arm thrown out to a full thirty-degree angle, with the best of them.

Oh, yes, Dexter gives us a little sample of his Peter Pan wire act — The Pirate King gets hooked up, à la Peter, and flies, to no discernible useful purpose, back and forth across the stage. Hey, the wires are there, we might as well use them. For good measure, we get a couple of diaphanous creatures adding to the atmosphere of the Major General’s sleeplessness in Acts II as well, floating agreeably on high.

Finally, a good measure of the low estimate Dexter has of his audience is the interpolated word “now” in Major General Stanley’s explanation of his newly acquired ancestry: “I don’t know whose ancestors they were. But I know whose ancestors they are now.” Gilbert thought, rightly, that “are,” properly spoken, would be clear enough. He was right, but in musical comedy you don’t want to assume too much in the way of sophistication in the audience. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s billions are the result of getting that low estimate just right. Dexter is not far behind.

The woman sitting next to me was, I have to admit, quite untroubled by any curmudgeonly reflections like mine. She was rapt the whole time; fortunately for my concentration, she limited her singing along with the music to the Act I overture and the end-of-Act-II reprise. There are benefits to be found, of one sort or another, at almost every performance you might see.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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

Share This Book