Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
As our Cincinnati Reds spend the next few weeks in Florida in spring training, the Pirates are visiting our city. Oh, not the Pittsburgh Pirates, but rather The Pirates of Penzance, the swashbuckling Gilbert & Sullivan comedic operetta. As presented in a Mainstage Series production at the University of Cincinnati - Conservatory of Music (CCM), this show is a frolicking good time, thanks in large part to solid performances and inventive direction.
The Pirates of Penzance premiered in 1879 and has been a favorite of opera and musical theater fans ever since. The story follows Frederic, who was mistakenly apprenticed to a ship of pirates as an 8-year-old by his guardian Ruth (who mistook "pilot" for "pirate"). Now about to turn 21, and following his unending devotion to duty, Frederic plans to leave the pirates and dedicate himself to a noble life, which includes the destruction of the pirates. Upon his first moments away from the ship, he discovers and quickly falls in love with Mabel, one of the many daughters of Major-General Stanley. However, the Pirate King finds Frederic and informs him that, because he is apprenticed until his 21st birthday, and because he was born on February 29th, Frederic still has many years to go before he is free to leave the band of thieves. The conflicted and duty sworn Frederic must choose between his new love and pure living, or his life back with the pirates. Throw in a group of scared and bumbling policemen, Mabel's flighty sisters, and the pirates, who themselves aren't nearly as menacing as they like to think, and you have a fun and chaotic story. In 1980, the show was revised and presented by Joseph Papp, and this is the version staged at CCM.
The score for Pirates includes haunting arias ("Stay, Frederic, Stay"), beautiful ballads ("Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast"), jaunty anthems ("Oh, Better Far to Live and Die"), and, of course, a fair share of rapid-fire patter songs ("I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General"). The memorable melodies by Arthur Sullivan are matched by witty lyrics by W.S Gilbert that are wordplay at its finest. Gilbert's story is one filled with silliness and satire (likely more evident in its day than to modern ears), and following in the traditional formula of the time.
As Frederic, Bobby List supplies a lovely tenor voice and is aptly naïve and eager. He winningly captures the humorously conflicted "slave of duty." Preston Boyd embodies the right mix of macho bravado and flamboyance as the Pirate King. Meggie Cansler is an endearing Mabel and shows off a bright and confident soprano singing voice to great success. As Major-General Stanley, Jonathan Parks-Ramage is appropriately buffoonish (with great mannerisms befitting the role) and handles the quick pace of the patter songs with skill. Also giving worthwhile performances are Darcy Yellin (Ruth), Adam Laird (Sergeant of Police) and the rest of the talented cast. With the exception of a few diction problems here and there (particularly in some early choral numbers), the CCM students deliver solid performances as usual.
One of the most important reasons for the success of this production is the direction by Jeremy Gold Kronenberg. He has flooded the show with a child-like exuberance and silly playfulness which includes just a few modern references, much to the delight of the audience. This marks one of the first times that an MFA Directing candidate has led a CCM Mainstage production. Though there is occasionally too much happening on stage to take in all at once, and the ending seems a bit rushed, the non-stop pace and consistently fun tone are just right for Pirates. Choreographer (and CCM student) Connor Gallagher supplies bouncy dances well-suited to the material, and Music Director Roger Grodsky spiritedly leads a splendid 14-piece orchestra.
Tom Umfrid's nautical-themed and whimsical scenic designs, as well as the costumes by Yu Ishida and Rebecca Senske, are handsome and a good match for the production. The praiseworthy lighting by Luke A. Kritzeck features some nice use of footlights.
The Pirates of Penzance is a classic example of late 19th century operetta and Gilbert & Sullivan at their best. CCM's delightful staging emphasizes the fun nature of the piece, and a talented cast and great direction make this a recommended viewing for Cincinnati audiences. The show continues at CCM through March 5, 2006, and tickets can be ordered by calling (513) 556-4183.-- Scott Cain