Story: Young Frederic has been raised by pirates who roam the Caribbean Sea in the 19th century. There’s a stipulation, though, that he is to be freed upon his 21st birthday. Honorable fellow that he is, Frederic reluctantly vows to track down the band of brigands who raised him because they are outlaws. This doesn’t set well with the Pirate King, who informs Frederic that if he were to marry a virgin he can reverse a curse on his pirate pals and free all of them. As it is, they’re destined for a life of loneliness at sea.
Frederic falls in love with a fair maiden named Mabel, one of many daughters of the Major General who rules her Caribbean island. The Pirate King complicates matters, though, when he reveals that Frederic’s birthday is February 29th. Thus, he celebrates a birthday only every fourth year, which puts him in conscription with the scofflaws for another 63 years. Yikes!
Highlights: Believe it or not, The Pirates of Penzance has been performed just twice since The Muny officially began in 1919, back in 1921 and again in 1983. The latter appearance came just after a stirring revival on Broadway by Joseph Papp that starred St. Louis’ own Kevin Kline.
No matter. One of several smashingly successful 19th century operettas penned by composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and lyricist/author Sir William Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance has been a perennially popular favorite for nearly a century and a half. Now, this new version conceived by Gordon Greenberg, Neil Benjamin and John McDaniel, with additional book and lyrics by Benjamin and music supervision, new arrangements and orchestrations by McDaniel, is playing The Muny under Greenberg’s fastidious direction.
Other Info: Tongue-in-cheek as it may be, Pirates! makes for a long evening at certain junctures of its deceptively short two hours, especially the first act. Mostly, that’s when Jay Armstrong Johnson is the focus of attention as Frederic. Johnson has the challenge of making the awkward and stilted hero engaging, but for the most part doesn’t succeed. In truth, the role is just too dated and tedious to be entertaining, even in a lampoon.
All’s well, however, whenever Hunter Foster cavorts across the stage as The Pirate King. Giving his best Captain Sparrow impersonation, Foster is immensely appealing and very funny, too, charming the audience from the stage or even in the aisles of the box seats. He has the best line of the night, too, when he learns that the Major General has lied about being an orphan: “You are a liar, you are a liar, and your pants are all on fire!”
It’s a juggling act for the performers to present such dated characters in lively fashion, but they do so generally with glee and carefree abandon. The local constabularies are played in grandly disorganized fashion by Alan Mingo Jr. as the Police Sergeant and his hapless crew of law enforcers that includes local performers Steve Isom, Jerry Vogel, Rich Pisarkiewicz and Khnemu Menu-Ra. It’s a trip watching them sashay to Tarantara, replete with Vogel doing a blind man’s walk in sort of step with his comrades.
Kathy Fitzgerald makes for a lusty and free-wheeling Ruth, BFF of the brigands, who mistook Frederic’s father’s request that his son be raised by ‘pilots’ as ‘pirates.’ Tory Ross introduces us to the Caribbean Light Opera Society as Lady Prunella Brick-Bletchley, who also commandeers Muny executive producer Mike Isaacson’s page of commentary in the program since she “outrank(s) him socially.”
Analisa Leaming is plucky and perseverant as Frederic’s true love, Mabel, even if she causes her father to shudder with her embarrassing penchant for “thinking,” which certainly diminishes her chances at marriage in his eyes. As General Stanley, Ed Dixon handles with considerable aplomb the famously difficult patter song, (I Am the Very Model of) A Modern Major General. Dixon’s comic delivery has the right touch for this most ‘period’ of period pieces.
So shiver your timbers and set sail aboard Rob Bissinger’s quaint and nautical set design, adapted by Steve Gilliam. Enjoy the filthy frocks of the deep-sea marauders stitched together by David Woolard, who is ably assisted with additional costume designs by Robin McGee. Jason Krueger offers some hardy sound effects, Seth Jackson lights the ship and the Major General’s living quarters and Ben Whitely’s lively musical direction deserves accolades as well. And kudos for the props person who proffers the parrot.
Denis Jones’ choreography is a real plus, whether watching the title characters sway while tossing burlap bags in a makeshift chorus line, checking out the Major General’s comely daughters on the beach or espying the ragtag police force under the tutelage of their sergeant. There’s even some nifty swordplay under the guidance of Michael Gossmy.
Pirates! can be lots of fun and also “Bor-ing!,” as Homer Simpson would intone, depending on the scene and who’s involved. Uncertain plunder, as it were. Aargh!
Musical: Pirates! (or Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d)
Group: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: August 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Tickets: From free to $70; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Larry Pry/The Muny