Thursday, October 01, 2009

second-draft review of *The Pirates of Penzance*

Rodgers and Hammerstein first came out on vinyl. Gilbert and Sullivan first came out on wax cylinders: Way old.
But you know all that do-your-duty, curtsy-to-the-queen Victorian priggishness and prudery? Gilbert and Sullivan spoofed it like Monty Python mocking Margaret Thatcher.
And this month, the Civic’s offering a playful and enchanting production of the G&S musical The Pirates of Penzance. Nine reasons to catch it:

An entire pirate ship with a poop deck and everything | David Baker’s set makes you feel like you’re on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, only these privateers can sing... in rhyme. The Pirate King even swings in on a rope. How threatening are his fellow buccaneers? Think Stuart Little with an eye patch.
We have missed our opportunity / Of escaping with impunity.

Elvis was a Victorian | Yvonne A.K. Johnson’s direction repeatedly finds the comedy inside the romance: Coloratura flourishes and trills develop into self-mockery. Updating this comic operetta from 1879, Johnson weaves in allusions to Busby Berkeley, do-wop cheerleaders, Monty Python and the King himself.
I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore, / And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Only suckers make promises | Watching The Pirates of Penzance is like looking into a funhouse mirror. Victorians expected every man to do his duty; we’ll look out for ourselves, thanks. They actually valued sexual modesty; we created the Internet so we could have more porn.
Oh, is there not one maiden breast / Which does not feel the moral beauty / Of making worldly interest / Subordinate to sense of duty?

The boots beneath the petticoats | Our hero’s torn between his “duties” and the Major-General’s “daughters, all of which are beauties.” Jan Wanless puts the women’s chorus in lavenders and sea-foam greens, with every muslin and every bustle varied but blended. This is how costumes enhance a show.
Pray observe the magnanimity / We display to lace and dimity!

Ladies, wield your parasols | The choreography, by Troy Nickerson and Jillian Wylie, allows dancers their individuality while still creating group effects: Damsels in distress form a porcupine circle with umbrellas pointing outward. Side-step sashaying with locked arms unites the choruses of pirates and lasses.
Let us gaily tread the measure / Make the most of fleeting leisure.

Their daddy is Ichabod Crane | Doug Dawson — a kind of scarecrow wraith in a pith helmet, with medals splattered on his chest and the cutest little knock-knees peeping out above his starched socks — plays the daughters’ father as a bamboozled old coot.
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical / From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.
In short, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral, he’s the scrawny model of a modern major-general.

The cutest widdle teddy bear | The Major-General clutches it when he’s scared.
There is no quote from G&S / About the bear’s great worthiness.

Gosh, that leading couple can really sing and act | Russell Seaton’s Frederic is very much in earnest and quite naive (that is, until he winks at us). Andrea Dawson’s Mabel seems like a prissy soprano (until she hits the high notes while bending over to check out Seaton’s backside).
[They] shall quickly be parsonified, / Conjugally matrimonified.

Finale | Johnson’s production, an escape into inspired lunacy, is so accomplished and so wonderful that in matters actorly, directorly and choreo-fantastical, it’s the very model of a modern major musical.

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