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The Pirates of Penzance

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

It can be difficult to resist the romantic allure of pirates - men and women alike can find something to admire, envy, or long for in the swarthy swashbucklers who adventure for nefarious reasons on the high seas. This innate fascination can go a long way in making a pirate-themed evening bearable when the proceedings are low on swarth and heavier on the buckle than the swash.

Such is the case with the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of The Pirates of Penzance. The show, which is currently celebrating its 125th anniversary as the quintessential pirate musical comedy, has lost none of its comic freshness or musical zing; Sir William S. Gilbert's libretto remains impeccably clever and Sir Arthur Sullivan's melodies beguiling and memorable. Musical theatre lovers saddened by the bombast of Brooklyn or the bloodlessness of Dracula should hightail it to City Center for these choice, timeless tunes.

Otherwise, this production, which runs through January 23, is an uneven one that generally hoists its adherence to the established as high as the Jolly Roger. Though Albert Bergeret conducts and musical directs with respectful flair, his direction of the production doesn't so much highlight the low, dry comedy but instead leaves the proceedings waterlogged. Much of his stodgy staging could have come from the amateur operetta director handbook: face front, hand to hand, always click heels on the word "duty," and so on. All this imparts very little new life to the work, which thrives on rampant silliness and ridiculous circumstance - how many stories would forego the sword-fighting adventure and sherry-fueled shenanigans of the ocean's human marauders to instead devote vast swaths of music to how depressing it is to be an orphan?

This is a show that should always, first and foremost, ride on tidal waves of whimsy. The titular pirates, led by the Pirate King (Ross David Crutchlow), are all orphans and will attack no one who is also one; their long-indentured apprentice, Frederic (Andrew MacPhail), threatens to rid the world of them as soon as he's out of their services; a war almost erupts over the confusion of the words "orphan" and "often"; an absurd technicality might bind Frederic to the pirates for decades longer than planned. The more hectic and bizarre the goings on onstage, the better.

But Bergeret too often lets his production get moored in earnestness, even when aiming for comedy, thus diluting many potential laughs. Must, for example, Hal Linden (as know-it-all Major-General Stanley) stop his tongue-twisting introduction "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" not once but three times to claim he'll never think up a correct rhyme? Or must Frederic's one-time nursemaid and current pirate cohort Ruth (Angela Smith) force her way through her establishing solo "When Frederic Was a Little Lad" like an out-of-control cuckoo clock?

Still, amid the traditional trappings of Lou Anne Gilleland's storybook beach and chapel sets and Gail J. Wofford's colorful but generic costumes, a few glimpses of brilliance shine through: During a brief reprise of "With Cat-Like Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal," the men's chorus slips into a fantastically funny choreographic quotation of A Chorus Line, complete with sequined hats (this and the show's other satirically prancing dances were devised by Bill Fabris); at one point, the women's chorus impersonates a locomotive driven, apparently, by parasol power; and Linden performs a few creaky ballet steps during his final number in puppy-shaped slippers.

The cast always has more fun - and looks and sounds better - when things are this wacky. Linden has the Major-General's befuddledness down pat and brings a nice glint of star power to the company; Laurelyn Watson, as his daughter (and Frederic's beloved) Mabel, impresses with her weighty, resonant soprano and understated comic sense. MacPhail's got the goofy leading-man looks Frederic needs, but the upper part of his range is almost perilously thin, and difficult to hear even in this moderately amplified production. Crutchlow approximates his bluster as the Pirate King, but could do with a bit more bravado; Smith's wavering voice and uncertain acting render her Ruth a bit too much of a doddering cipher.

What doesn't need to be puzzled out is the pleasing power of The Pirates of Penzance; even at 125 years old, it can be enormously entertaining and musically satisfying. But this production would be better served if Bergeret took Fabris's lead and proved less willing to let the show show its age.

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New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players
The Pirates of Penzance
Through January 23
Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
City Center, West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.581.1212