Review: The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan Austin
by David Glen Robinson
Gilbert and Sullivan Austin premiered its 2017 Grand Production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance on June 15, 2017. The company offers one full production per year, to great expectations always, and it does not disappoint with Pirates.
The original production of The Pirates of Penzance took place in 1879 in New York City, not London. W.S. Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan, and their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte moved the production to New York to avoid the English theatrical industry, which had cheated them out of all royalties for H.M.S. Pinafore. There’s even a mocking line in Pirates about “that infernal nonsense Pinafore.” The production delighted New York from the first performances, and four separate touring companies of the show fanned out across America. The opera didn’t open in London for four months after the New York opening.
Gilbert and Sullivan Austin is a kind of historical recreation society, anthologists of stage productions of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s works.The attempt is to give audiences a glimpse of what a G&S production might have looked like on stage. So it is perhaps for this reason that Pirates seems to get off to a slow start, at least by 21st century summer blockbuster movie standards. But all the set-ups and character introductions are worth it. The show works its magic gradually. There is a point in the first act at which the stage filled with absurd stereotypical costumes garbing actors rocking and swaying while singing corny lyrics causes one’s adult critical reserve to cave in. After that, one drinks the kool-aid of Victorian light opera entertainment and its comedy, inoffensive and very effective 140 years later and counting.
And that moment comes well before “I am the very model of a modern major-general” sung by Arthur DiBianca as General Stanley. The Gilbert and Sullivan Austin veteran hits every syllable while the audience follows the supertitles, chuckling evilly. No pressure, Arthur. DiBianca and the ensemble intersperse the verses and chorus with marching movement phrases and arm and hand gestures. The song becomes an excellent production number, one that has to be done right; and the performers pick up all the sticks.
So it takes a while but we’re hooked eventually.But to what? The story has to stay light or it wouldn’t be light opera. It all begins with the titular pirates frolicking on a rocky beach in Cornwall, southwest England. They have landed to release an indentured pirate, young Frederic, played by Danny Castillo. His servitude ends on his 21st birthday, supposedly today.Potential marriage partners happen along, wards of Major-General Arthur Stanley. Intrigue ensues, with matching and mismatching worthy of high opera and a perfectly gratuitous sword melee at the end of Act One.
More of the same in Act Two. And while the Act One set is cardboardy and two-dimensional, the Act Two set is sublime and timeless, described in the program simply as “a ruined chapel by moonlight.” This set is reminiscent of City Theatre’s “Moonrise over Wasteland” set for Waiting for Godot a few years back. Kudos to Set Designer Ann Marie Gordon and her construction crew.
Gilbert and Sullivan Austin recruits excellent local musical talent in Austin for its yearly grand stage productions. Musical Director Jeffrey Jones Ragona is a musical gem in his own right, not the least of the talents G&S Austin installs in its productions every year. This year’s discovery is Suzanne Lis, an award-winning singer in the role of Frederic’s love interest, Mabel. She hits every note in perfect pitch and holds each one as long as need be. After her songs, she seems to show no evidence of exertion for all the vocal work. She is an amazing talent with a long career ahead.
Russell Gregory is in the midst of his own long career, the deep lines of experience on his face assisting his character of the police sergeant. His bass voice remains clear, and he moves expertly through his police baton-swinging routines. Mr. Gregory is the true treasure of the company.
Sam Johnson embodies the Pirate King with his towering, fierce demeanor. His leadership is unquestionable, and he conveys an odd sense of nobility. Sarah Manna, Jaimie Lowe, and Teri Johnson enliven the stage as General Stanley’s singing wards. The back row ensemble members also deserve credit for their skilled execution of choruses and group dance work. Notably, Sarah Steele is back from last year’s The Gondoliers and her risky face-planting stage stunts.
Gilbert and Sullivan invented topsy-turvyism, by which values and social conventions are upended for satire and mockery. The Pirates of Penzance is full of such satire, and it ends with a lulu of the topsy-turvy species, but the contrivance is as shallow and thin as the Act One set is flat, and it lacks any foreshadowing whatsoever. Still and all, the contrivance and the entire opera have for generations satisfied class-stratified Britons and Americans, especially those of about a twelve-year old mental age, to whom pirates of the mind belong.
The Pirates of Penzance may be one of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s most popular light operas ever, and some of its fantasy tropes may well have informed Sir J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in its many media forms.Gilbert and Sullivan Austin’s production of The Pirates of Penzance has to stand in the forefront of American light opera productions this year.
The music is exquisite, and, yes, a few voices struggle in their work, but seeing the quest for perfection on stage is why we go to the theatre. The esthetic and emotional rewards are immense.
The Pirates of Penzance merits a don’t-miss recommendation for families and pirates of all ages. The show runs June 15-25, 2017 at the Worley Barton Theater at Brentwood Christian School. The location is off North Lamar, north of Braker Lane. A couple of signs announcing “pirates!” on the west side of the street show where to turn in.
June 15 - June 25, 2017
11908 N Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX, 78753
June 15-25, 2017 / Thursdays-Sundays / 9 Performances
Evening performances Thursdays, Fridays, & Saturdays at 7:30 pm. Matinees at 2 pm June 18, 24 & 25.
Special Children’s Activities Sunday, June 18 at 1pm.
Worley Barton Theater at Brentwood Christian School / 11908 N. Lamar Tickets $8-$27
Purchase tickets at www.gilbertsullivan.org or call 512.474.5664
For group sales of 10 or more contact Michael Meigs at 512.420.0888 or firstname.lastname@example.org