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THEATRE REVIEW: A brilliant production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ at Barrington Stage

There is not one performance in this production that is not perfectly rendered in keeping with the original intent of the show.

The Pirates of Penzance
Book by W.S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan in an edition by Wilford Leach
Directed by John Rando
Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse

“. . .a most intriguing paradox.”

David Garrison and the Girls. Photo: Kevin Sprague.
David Garrison and the Girls. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

People talk about the 1981 Wilford Leach production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” as though it was a revelatory version created for Joseph Papp’s N.Y. Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. They seem to feel that the edition created by Leach and his musical arranger, William Elliott, was radically different from the traditional Doyly Carte version first presented in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1878. What was different in 1981 was this: an orchestration that could be utilized by a small orchestral ensemble and actor/singers who were not operatically inclined, namely Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Kline, Rex Smith, Estelle Parsons and George Rose. Hardly a word was altered in the script; rarely a lyric tweaked for American audiences. It was the way in which the work was defined – a park production with Americans doing what they do best in the theater: making us laugh. The success of the production made G&S more acceptable to a wider audience and the fact that most of the company repeated their roles for a film was a tribute to the whole Joseph Papp ideal.

So here we are, 35 years later, with a new production of the Leach concept at Barrington Stage Company with a mostly American company again doing what they do best: entertaining us and making us laugh. These, however, are touchier times than in 1981. The police are the comic chorus and when the heroine, her guardian and her sisters invoke the wish that the policemen “go to glory, go ye heroes, go to death,” it has a more chilling ring to it in the light of all the recent activity in cities around the country and the globe. That none of them do die is a good thing here for this is a social comedy and we like these police as much as we like the pirates and the hero and the girls and the nanny with the hearing problem.

Set in Penzance, more or less, on the coast of West Cornwall, England, the pirates in this version are as funny as can be and the police are even funnier. The girls are delightful: there are twins among them played beautifully by Claire and Alanna Saunders. All of them sing, dance, pose and roll their eyes and their parasols divinely.

Jane Carr, Will Swenson, and Kyle Dean Massey. Photo: Kevin Sprague.
Jane Carr, Will Swenson, and Kyle Dean Massey. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

In Gilbert’s world of “topsy-turvydom,” he created problems that were out of the norm and then used utter logic to resolve those problems. In this show he gives Frederick, played here with unusual sensitivity by Kyle Dean Massey, two such problems: he has been apprenticed to a pirate instead of a ship’s pilot and his birth is on February 29 which confuses and confounds his actual age and his ability to become his own man. It is a paradox, a paradox, a most delicious paradox and it is at the heart of the problem. The operetta’s subtitle is not offered in the Barrington program but it is often heard in the dialogue; it should read: “or, The Slave of Duty.” Frederick is an honorable man and he is enslaved by his sense of duty and responsibility. He cannot go against his principles. Massey plays this beautifully with all the nobility a man’s soul can express. Massey is a much less idiotic figure than Rex Smith portrayed in 1981. He is a fine man, this current Frederick, noble and sensible and totally charming. It is easy to see the why and wherefore when Mabel falls under his spell.

She is played with much more graceful acumen than Ronstadt brought to the role by Scarlett Strallen. Strallen is substantial, always an identifiable figure among the girls, and she is pretty with a much prettier voice, something between a G&S soprano and Ronstadt. She executes the difficult passaggio in “Poor, Wandering One” exquisitely and sings the tender interpolated song “Sorry Her Lot” with emotional power, making it a much more modern piece than might be expected.

As her romantic rival for Frederick’s attention, Jane Carr offers another delicious interpretation to her long list of fine performances. She can do a lot more with a simple frown and a down-turned glance than most actresses could do with a wink and a dropped shoulder strap. She manages to be both sympathetic and silly at the same time, which is a lot for anyone to do. It’s a delight to have her in this company. If you only know her for her TV comedy work, you’ll be surprised when you hear her sing.

As her principle partner-in-crime, Will Swenson is a delicious swaggerer as the Pirate King. He delivers a solid performance, paused halfway to silliness and somehow staggeringly real. Singing, dueling, dancing and acting, he is a master of the role he plays. He brings to it a finer sensibility than Gilbert may have intended, but he is never easy, never glib and always he is captivating. Swenson is matched by the blithe performance of David Garrison as Major-General Stanley. Garrison delivers handsomely in this comic role. He comes across here as genuinely concerned about all sorts of things including his guilty conscience, which is treated as real and not comic in this production. Many people hate the usual patter song but, when he wends his way through it, you wish for an encore. You may be lucky and get it.

Alex Gibson and the Chorus. Photo: Kevin Sprague.
Alex Gibson and the Chorus. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

There is not one performance in this production that is not perfectly rendered in keeping with the original intent of the show. A few outstanding members, however, must be acknowledged. Alex Gibson as the police sergeant is brilliant in his best basso way. Philip Boykin adds his sonorous tones to create a memorable Samuel. Lindsay O’Neil and Jacqueline Petroccia as Edith and Kate lead the other girls through marvelous vocal ensembles and share delectable bits of dialogue.

The constant movement of the company on a set that includes two stage boxes filled with actual audience members is executed with brilliance by choreographer Joshua Bergasse who seems to know just how pirates and cops and girls should move. John Rando, the director, has clearly worked his cast hard, for they are all perfectly in tune with the stage techniques of the 1870s and yet are modern and accessible in a musical comedy manner. These two men together fashion superb theatre and they should never be parted. The show, over all, is a delight to watch and to listen to even when the lyrics fly by too fast to grasp every word. The wonder of G&S is that every word is published and we can find it later if we really need to, which I don’t think we do in this case with this cast.

The physical production is just as much fun as the company that performs on, in and under it. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are superb and are highlighted on the beautiful period sets designed by Beowulf Borritt through the fine lighting by Jason Lyons. Ryan Winkles’ fight choreography is expert and amusing at the same time. Leah Loukas’ wigs are more right than wigs ought to be and even the sound design is finely wrought and unusually well balanced by Ed Chapman. The eight pit musicians under the joint direction of Darren R. Cohen and the excellent Evan Roider do wonderful justice to this complex score–part Verdi, part Offenbach and all Sullivan.

I am one of the lucky ones on the other side of the proscenium: I got to see this show twice. I hope you get to see it once, at least. It is a thoroughly fun experience and not to be missed. And there’s no paradox about that statement! None at all.

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The Pirates of Penzance plays at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Theater, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, Mass., through Saturday, August 13. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 236-8888, or go online to barringtonstage.org.

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