Houston's G & S Society's Pirates of Penzance
Column: The Naked Critic
Houston's G & S Society's Pirates of Penzance is Priceless, Passionate, and Playful
Ever wonder where Mack Senneck got his ideas for The Keystone Cops and slapstick comedy?
Ever wonder about the origins of today's rap singing?
Look no further than Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, which is receiving a glorious new production by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston in it's 58
th season at the Cullen Theater in the Wortham Theater Center.
A Wortham insider shared with me that the fourth tour of The Phantom of the Opera, now playing at the Hobby Center, is being given a run for its money due to the popularity and pizzazz of the latest production of The Pirates of Penzance.
G & S wrote their most popular comic opera (although Sullivan did not consider it his best work) and it received a New York premiere in 1879.
Pirates has remained and continues to reign as a leader among the great classic comic operas for one hundred and thirty years.
The Phantom of the Opera, created by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1986, has been running for twenty three years. Do we seriously believe that Phantom will run another hundred and seven years?
Beginning with the masterful and powerful wand of conductor, Dr. Brian Runnels, and the nine-minute overture of the brilliant music we will shortly experience at length and in context, we are suddenly swept away by the ingenuity and impeccability of Sullivan's score.
As the curtain opens, the pirates make their entrance with the rousing "Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry."
And such a rousing men's chorus I have never heard!
Ralph Katz, as the Pirate King, is the shortest person on the stage.
The comic element in this opera is already being set up.
Katz sports a robust baritone-bass and immediately draws us into this world of bold and brazen men, brandishing a sword as tall as him, and relishing every moment.
The tall and handsome Frederic, here keenly sung by Joshua LaForce, informs his fellow pirates that he has fulfilled his duties as a pirate and wishes to leave the band and devote himself to the extermination of pirates.
LaForce is a force to be reckoned with, by stature and by song, in his strong and unwavering tenor timbre.
His nurse and the maid of the entire band of pirates, Ruth, is brilliantly revealed by the ever-lovely, ever-versatile, and ever-hilarious Christy Larimer-Compson who wants to marry Frederic.
In the first duet of the opera, Ruth's and Frederic's "Oh, False One, You Have Deceived Me," we learn that she might not exactly be the most beautiful woman available for him to marry and she expresses that she thought she was apprentising Frederic in his career as a pilot, not a pirate.
Enter the beautiful maidens, wards of Major-General Stanley.
And, of course, Mabel, beautifully and amazingly sung by coloratura soprano Alison Greene, focuses her eye on the handsome and (she thinks) available Frederic.
(Keep your eyes focused on this rising star in the world of opera.)
Enter Major-General Stanley and a blockbuster patter performance by the one and only G & S favorite, Alistair Donkin, in the infamous "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General."
We've seen and heard it a thousand and one times and we know that it is coming but, like children, we can't wait to hear him do it!
And, unfailingly, Donkin delivers, dazes, dizzies, and delights us with two more renditions, one faster than the next, egged on by the Pirate King et al.
This has to be the origin of modern day rap music with it's clever rhyming and in-rhyming and its rollicking, rip-roarious rhythm.
Even the conductor pleads for mercy after the third tempo, waiving a giant white flag of surrender.
Oh, the fun of it all!
The Major-General then convinces the pirates that he is an orphan and the pirates believe him and allow him and his beautiful ward of ladies to go free.
In Act II, we meet the policemen (the original Keystone Cops) who will bring down the pirates, according to Frederic's wishes.
Dennis Arrowsmith as the Sergeant of Police makes the most of his booming basso, all the while making the audience hysterical with his cartwheels and Chaplinesque and Marx Brothers-like bravisimo.
The pirates arrive upon the scene with the glorious "Now for the Pirates Lair!"
My only grievance here has always been that this tuneful chorus is not reprised near the finale with different lyrics.
There are three wonderfully sung trios in a row, with Ruth, Frederic and the Pirate King, that move our pirate story along, the end result being that Frederic decides because of his intense slave to duty, that he must rejoin the pirates.
Ruth explains to the police that the pirates are really, "noblemen who have gone wrong."
But before the finale, we experience the last dazzling duets twixt Mabel and Frederic, "All is Prepared," and "Stay, Frederic, Stay," delightfully and delicately delivered by our remarkable stars, Alison Greene and Joshua LaForce.
Eventually, everything gets tied up neatly and everyone is paired off successfully and lives happily ever after.
Stage director and star, Alistair Donkin, lovingly directs this G & S masterpiece, and adds just enough schtick, schmaltz, slapstick, double-takes, and broadness to keep us remembering that this is a comic opera.
Because their writing is so winningly melodic and memorable, we tend to forget that Gilbert and Sullivan are poking fun at the grand opera of their time.
Donkin forever keeps that out front with his clever and interesting staging and steps aside often, graciously allowing the other leads to shine abundantly.
One of the funnier moments is in Act II when, after a chorus of police antics, everyone hurries offstage only to quickly return to repeat the same routine.
Donkin's ingenious staging is nothing short of a miracle when one considers the number of bodies he has to move on and off the stage.
Donkin is so humble that he does not even give himself credit for the clever choreography that weaves together the colorful tapestry that is Pirates.
Chorus Master Kevin Riehle has so well-rehearsed his chorus that, instead of the sometimes muddy and indistinctive sound of many a chorus, we hear every word, phrase, rest, and detail of Sullivan's sumptuous score and Gilbert's glorious lyrics.
Bonnie Holt Ambrose's costumes are rich in detail and texture.
Her pirates are dressed in deep golds, reds, and blacks and the fair maidens are dressed in gorgeous gowns of pastel greens, blues, pinks, lavenders and yellows.
And, of course, the policemen are delectably donned in their deep navy uniforms, which later become a wonderful contrast to the richness of the pirates' attire and the colorful brightness of the maidens' finery.
Tom Boyd, as set designer, beautifully creates a multi-level rocky seashore grotto for Act I and a dreamy ruined chapel and grounds for Act II.
Ken Robertson-Scott's expert lighting creates the varied moods of Pirates, from the brightness and glare of the seashore to the surreal and moonlit nuances of the chapel.
Long live Pirates!
Go ahead and let yourself be captured once again by Gilbert & Sullivan's marvellous The Pirates of Penzance.
Only three performances remain:
Friday, July 24th at 8 p.m.
Saturday, July 25th at 8 p.m.
Sunday, July 26th at 2 p.m.
At the Cullen Theater in the Wortham Theater Center.
For more information and/or tickets:
Published: 21 Jul 2009