Saturday, September 26, 2009

first-draft review of *The Pirates of Penzance*

at Spokane Civic Theater through Oct. 25

Inspired Lunacy

Director Yvonne A.K. Johnson's production of The Pirates of Penzance is virtually flawless. You have to be in the mood for silliness -- but unless you're the sneering kind of snob who's never pleased with anything, this playful trifle of operatic down-the-rabbit-hole lunacy won't fail at cracking your lips into a smile. And then a guffaw, by Jove. And then the kind of open-mouthed admiration that only a capital production can elicit. It was indeed, all in all, a bully show, simply bully.
David Baker's set design -- first glimpsed as an entire working pirate ship swings into view, backlit behind a scrim and looking a bit fearsome -- sets the tone for a production that meets very high standards in nearly all departments. Once the buccaneer chorus has established itself with its swashes, buckles and songs, you start to feel as if you've blundered into a new version of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride -- veddy British, less threatening, and a whole lot more tuneful. Michael J. Muzatko's Pirate King swings in on a rope, setting the tone for a pirate crew that dropped in from Neverland and is about as threatening as the Lost Boys.
Baker's second-act ruined chapel -- creepy and beautiful in just the right measure -- typifies the entire show in its artful attention to detail: marble-like vines and crypts with pop-out doors match the earlier delights of the shadowy skull imposed on the drop curtain's enormous map and the pirate sloop's French name, "The Tender Heart" (suitable for the growly milquetoasts that man this particular frigate).
The costumes, by Jan Wanless and her team, get their moment when the Major-General's daughters first appear, twirling their gossamer parasols and descending a stairwell. One by one they appear, and the moment amounts to a costume parade that's particularly impressive. Wanless et al. have particularized each of the half-dozen eligible young ladies with muslins and prints, bustles and cutaway, layered fabrics that contrast lavender with sea-foam green and plaids with solids while melding the entire fluttery composition into a pleasing array that shone particularly well under Baker's lighting scheme. From the creased black crush of the Pirate King's trousers to the bright spats of the Keystone Cops who arrive in Act Two behind their walrus mustaches, the Penzance costumes alone are worth gaping at.
The choreography, by Troy Nickerson and Jillian Wylie, typifies this production's attention to detail by individualizing dancers, giving them something expressive to do and adding visual appeal to what could otherwise be repetitive choruses. The daughters perform an initial ballet with their parasols for "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain" that combines conventional movements seamlessly so that the parts meld into a larger, balletic whole. When the daughters are imperiled, they form a defensive circle like Roman soldiers, their umbrellas sticking out ludicrously as weapons. Side-step sashaying with locked arms unites the choruses of pirates and lasses.
Johnson's direction repeatedly finds the comedy inside the romance: Coloratura flourishes and trills become self-mocking. Quick allusions to 20th-century movie musicals, pop stars and cheerleading routines update the 19th-century operetta, finding a more recent way to earn the same parody-laughs that G&S sought 130 years ago, just by different means.
All the leads in the Civic's Penzance are exceptional -- both in their self-mocking delivery and their impressive singing -- led by Doug Dawson's Major General, all knock-kneed and almost unrecognizable under layers of makeup, a pith helmet and enormous facial hair. Dawson -- so skinny he's wraith-like -- goes the opposite route from the barrel-chested pomposity of so many modern (and model) major-generals. The high-pitched voice, general state of fluster, pauses to recollect himself, sinking sense of defeat at having so many daughters to account for -- even a widdle tiny teddy bear for to keep him comfy during the very scary crypt episodes -- they're all there, along with the crisp diction needed for the hyper-speed patter song near the end of Act One. With his gawky, praying-mantis movements, Dawson's General is the ultimate comic-book caricature in a show that's full of them.
As Frederic, the apprentice pirate, Russell Seaton widens his eyes in surprise at all the moral reversals around him. He leans forward from the waist to express just how earnest he is about all the lovely ideals (and lovely ladies) that he finds swirling around him. Seaton has the kind of puppy-dog expressions -- and powerful voice - that suit Frederic perfectly: earnestness taken to a comic extreme.
Andrea Dawson, as Mabel, is the show's operatic centerpiece. She hits the high notes even while leaning backwards to ogle Frederic's backside. The character's comedy works well because Dawson is so accomplished at the technical requirements of singing: Coached by Johnson, she makes the vocal pyrotechnics both beautiful and comic at the same time.
Darnelle Preston clarified poor old middle-aged Ruth's relationship to our hero (and the consonants and diction in "When Fred'ric Was a Little Lad") as well as I have ever heard. Watch for her sword-handling in the second-act "Pirates' Lair" series of songs.
As I said, virtually flawless. A raspy voice from time to time, some sound wobbles, rough-housing among the pirates at the outset that was too self-conscious, some occasionally tinny attacks by music director Trudy Harris' nine-piece orchestra, some lagging pace in the first four numbers of Act Two ... but that was about it. And Harris led some startlingly good harmonizing in the Act One finale, "Oh, Men of Dark and Dismal Fate," and the slower pace soon after intermission probably only felt slow by comparison with all the frantic fun before and after it.
And not to get too heavy with a light-comic operetta, but ... the thought occurred, as Seaton was pressing fist to chest for the umpteenth time in a show of his devotion to duty, that G&S spoofed those who were slaves to duty so thoroughly in this show because their own society was so fixated on it. Duty and sexual propriety, even at the cost of common-sensical and natural human urges -- Sullivan was making fun of those who allowed codes of conduct to overwhelm their human urges.
But consider how our own society is just the reverse: With porn everywhere, a glimpse of a world where girls are embarrassed to reveal so much as their ankles is almost like a trip to another planet. And those who keep promises even when it disadvantages them? What suckers.
Johnson's production of this silly little operetta is so good that it elevates Penzance into something more than mere silliness. When we laugh, hum along, tap our toes and are startled into realizations (we could do with a bit more sexual modesty, we ought to admire those who keep their word, if only because theyv'e demonstrated a higher kind of life worth living), then we've spent an enriching and utterly enjoyable two hours at the theater. The Civic's Pirates of Penzance is not to be missed.

[ photo: Jim Broadbent as W.S. Gilbert and Allan Corduner as Sir Arthur Sullivan in Mike Leigh's 1999 film, *Topsy-Turvy,* from ]

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At September 27, 2009 10:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps one of the most technically written review to date you actually covered all the parts of a production and enlightened/educated us - well done an with warranted criticism (put in a very proper manner).

At September 27, 2009 7:19 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Thanks. It's just a long "laundry list" review.
I've rewritten the entire thing.

Is there a whiff of insinuation a) that I don't usually cover all the parts of a production and b) that my criticisms are sometimes unwarranted and improper?

I thought so.

Not to be hyper-sensitive -- I'm just glad that there are readers out there. Seriously.

You raise some good points. The best reviews, I think, are selective: If there's nothing insightful (or at least assertive) to say, then don't say it.

It's a great happiness to see difficult work well done. Just makes me want to run up and hug everybody in the cast. We all respond better to praise. After slamming people, I feel slightly sick. But I'm passionate about theater. It's a calling, a vocation, a ritual, an honorable psychic space. We're all lucky to be involved in it, and we should all give it our best.

If reviewers leave poor or middling work unmentioned or glossed over, then you start hearing the complaints about, "Well, what exactly did he think about it?" Reviews are not from *Consumer Reports* -- simple thumbs up/down, go see/don't go see this show. They're essays about the quality of the performance and its relevance to the larger culture. (Well, ideally.)
But readers should be left with a detailed sense of what the reviewer thought was accomplished and not-so-accomplished.
Hence the reputation that we're all blood-sucking trolls. But you have to have the temerity to criticize in specific ways. And that hurts feelings. And we all, myself included, remember the criticisms more than the praises.
At which point -- whether after a blah review or a blah performance -- we just gotta dust ourselves off and say, Try again. Fail. Fail again. Fail better.


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