The Pirates of Finance
The most distinguished music you’ll hear at the New York Musical Theatre Festival this year, and in uppermost contention for all the festival’s full ten seasons so far, is that of The Pirates of Finance. This is not, alas, because librettist-lyricist Charles Veley has discovered a remarkable new composer capable of turning out a dazzling original score that compares favorably with those from masters such as Richard Rodgers or Jerome Kern, but rather because he’s exhumed one: Sir Arthur Sullivan — yes, that one, of Victorian comic operetta and Sir William Gilbert’s-partner fame.
You get, then, exactly what you’d expect from that information and the title: The story follows goodhearted Frederick Freemarket as he attempts to get the company he inherited from his uncle back on its feet. He must face off against the all-acquiring J. Geoffrey Behemoth and the potential revolt of his employees, whom Frederick forces to operate under a strict no-office-dating policy, which Frederick himself longs to violate once he meets and hires the nubile nutritionist Elsie Gardener.
The shiver of a thrill is unavoidable once Sullivan’s tunes kick in, the music pulled from nine of his most famous operettas (The Pirates of Penzance, naturally, being among the best represented). But it doesn’t last. Veley’s lyrics are too often leaden and overblown, and a bit lax as far as rhyme. Worse, they and the book have not appropriated Gilbert’s laughs. Real comedy is inherent in the premise, but The Pirates of Finance is seldom funny and never hilarious, straining as it attempts to justify why corporate mergers, SEC filing irregularities, and robo-trades deserve a borderline-operatic treatment.
Preston Ellis, though likable, is not a strong enough vocalist to fully convince as Frederick, but all the other voices are at least excellent; and in the cases of Amber Nicole Guest, playing the head of HR, and ensemble member Carter Lynch, they’re truly extraordinary. But comic dynamos more than superb singers are what’s needed, and at that only Deborah Jean Templin, a firebrand in a Ruth-style “matron” role, succeeds. No one else — including director-choreographer Gary Slavin, whose staging is cute but cluttered — seems to understand what the point of the evening is.
I wasn’t sure either, to be honest, but it was an uncommon joy to listen to. Though Unlock’d, a 2007 NYMF entry now playing Off-Broadway, proved this form can still work when approached fresh, a return to musical theatre’s founding musical principles is always welcome. If The Pirates of Finance can find its entertainment principles, too, expect your eyes — like your ears — to be fully opened to a sparkling situation.
If you must go out, be sure to go out with a bang. That’s the philosophy of Taylor Taylor, the actress who plays the scheming almost-middle-age Madison on the daytime TV soap Legacy Falls, once she discovers that the new producers are planning to revamp it from the ground up — and probably axe most of the leading players. So she campaigns for — and is willing to do anything to get — the knock-’em-down death scene she feels she deserves.
Her finale is worth it — as is that of the NYMF stage show, also called Legacy Falls, that depicts her troubles and those of the rest of the cast — but it takes a lot of work to get there. James Burn (book, music, and lyrics) and Ian Poitier (book, direction, and choreography) spend most of their time cycling through and dispensing every cliché imaginable: secret relatives, returning from the dead, sudden executions, and plenty more, as though by sheer volume they’ll make this a captivating ride through a much-maligned genre.
They don’t succeed because they don’t apparently find more recognizably human stories quite as compelling. Only one, about the secretly closeted Aging Leading Man (Kevin Spirtas) being unwittingly outed while dallying with a young assistant (Wilson Bridges), has any real bite. The rest are along familiar, sleepy lines: Will Ditzy Sexpot Ingenue (Liz Fye), fresh off the casting couch, prove herself as an actress? Will Aging Leading Dragon Lady (Tara Hugo, in raging Linda Evans–meets–Joan Collins mode) maintain her career if her costar quits? Will the producer (Erin Leigh Peck) keep the show on the air?
Blandly over-the-top performances and an undistinguished, though hardly unlistenable, score, don’t kindle much fire. If not for Spirtas and Bridges, who along with Nikki Van Cassele as Taylor give the most pointedly impassioned performances, and their two big relationship-defining numbers (especially the heartfelt first-act centerpiece “Usually”), the first two hours would be as forgettable as an average episode of Guiding Light.
But things are supercharged in the last 15 minutes during the live 30th-anniversary broadcast, when Taylor and her cast mates assume control of their series and rewrite it — and their own destinies — while the cameras are rolling. The stakes are high, the laughs solid, and the challenge and its solution both believable enough to send you floating out of the theater on a grin. It’s not sufficient to redeem all of the too-by-the-numbers Legacy Falls, but it might convince you to stick with it for one more season.
2013 New York Musical Theatre Festival