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The Pirates of Penzance

Pirates of Penzance
Eric Anderson, Adam Simmons and Kristin Reitter
The first applause break in the NoHo Arts Center's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance is a little startling. The show has opened like gangbusters, full of promise for what will happen next. The pirate chorus is loud and raucous, taking the stage with an enthusiasm tinged with goofiness. Their leader, the Pirate King, is played by Eric Anderson, whose mere presence has a way of both commanding his gang and welcoming the audience. And the first full number, "Ruth's Lament," is performed by Fiama Fricano as a great little character number - simultaneously taking care of the necessary exposition while Ruth explores her middle-aged sultry side. It suggests a production that is confidently directed - swift, creative, and, above all, entertaining.

And when the audience applauds, it sounds a little tepid. It isn't that the audience is unappreciative; it's that you're in a half-full 99-seat theatre in North Hollywood, and you'd been momentarily transported - not to Coney Island in the 1930s (where the production is set), but to a rather larger theatre that would be expected to hold a production of this apparent quality.

And then, just as you're settling in for an entertaining show, it starts to misstep. Literally, in fact. In what should be the first act's high point, "I Am A Pirate King!," the music has been altered to give Anderson an inexplicable little dance step after each line in the song's introduction, and the rhythm of the song has been changed a bit, too. To be fair, the alterations are actually foreshadowing something in the second act, but the ultimate reveal isn't worth messing with the show's signature song, especially when you've got such a strong vocal and comic talent like Anderson on hand to do it justice.

The small misstep turns into a giant tumble when the pirates leave the stage and are replaced by the "sisters" - four frilly-clad lasses who, when you get right down to it, have more first act stage time than the pirates. As they come trotting down the wooden pier set (singing "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain"), it is hard to identify any approach to these characters that the actresses have been given, other than to be cute and sing the score. At one point, they do a bit of business where they pass cigarettes to each other, as though they'd come out to the pier in order to have a private smoke, but then the cigarettes are thrown to the side nearly as soon as they'd been brought out - all to no end. Sometimes the girls speak with heavy "Noo Yawk" accents, but not all of them do, and it certainly isn't consistent. When they are courted en masse by Frederic (the former pirate apprentice), whether they are responding favorably or repulsed bears no relation to the lyrics they're singing.

Kristin Reitter, as Mabel, the sisters' sister who chooses Frederic, does, at least, attempt a character. With her rosy cheeks and frequently batting eyelashes, Reitter's Mabel acts as though she's a dainty Disney princess. The way she flutters her arms when she sings makes it look like Mabel really expects a bluebird to alight on her finger and trade trills with her. As Frederic, Adam Simmons cuts a handsome figure. (Keen eyes will notice Frederic is the only pirate whom costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg has put in a sleeveless shirt - Mabel certainly notices, her singing gets more spirited as she runs her hands over his muscles.) Simmons plays an innocent Frederic, but there's little more to him. During his songs, Simmons appears to be focussing only on singing each word; there's no interpretation there. The superficial characterizations of Mabel and Frederic would be fine if they were supporting characters with brief stage appearances, but Mabel and Frederic actually have a "lead" amount of songs. With nothing more than "imagined princess" and "innocent apprentice" going for them, they get old fast.

Others in the production gamely try to recover the excitement of the show's beginning, but the damage is already done. Fast talker John Moschitta Jr. (remember him from the Fed Ex commercials?) is a great fit for Major-General Stanley - and his super-fast second run-through of "I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General" can stand up against anyone's. The police officers (four pirates in different garb) bring some well-needed comic energy to a second act stalled by Mabel and Frederic (who have, by then, lost any chemistry from their initial meeting). And, of course, the Pirate King and Ruth come back for a few solid numbers, and the show again moves along at a good clip.

The promise of a 1930s Coney Island adaptation is never really fulfilled by director Karesa McElheny. Other than a few line rewrites, there doesn't seem to be any purpose to it - and younger audiences of today are probably more familiar with 19th century pirates than 1930s Coney Island (a reference to "Mayor LaGuardia" was met by a loudly whispered "I don't know who that is" from a kid sitting across the aisle). But, more than that, there's not enough of the playfulness that should come from setting the second act in a fun house. Sure, a few characters make surprising entrances, and there are a few extra hiding places on the set, but the physical comedy isn't fast enough and the visual jokes not plentiful enough to really justify the adaptation. There are some good ideas here, and some excellent talent on the stage, but it doesn't gel enough into the production it could be.

The Pirates of Penzance runs at the NoHo Arts Center through December 10, 2006. For information, see www.thenohoartscenter.org.

The NoHo Arts Center presents an Open At The Top production of The Pirates of Penzance. Libretto by W.S. Gilbert; Music by Arthur Sullivan. Scenic Design Lacey Anzelc; Lighting Design Luke Moyer; Costume Design A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; Sound Design Jonathan Zenz & Madonna Cacciatore; Musical Director & Music Adaptation Christopher Lavely; Hair & Make-Up Design Robin McWilliams; Assistant Director & Production Stage Manager Stefanie Black; Choreographer Brian Paul Mendoza; Press Representative David Elzer/Demand PR; Director Karesa McElheny.

Cast:
The Pirate King - Eric Anderson
Ruth - Fiama Fricano
Mabel - Kristin Reitter
Frederic - Adam Simmons
Major-General Stanley - John Moschitta Jr.
The Sergeant of Police - Joshua Ziel
Samuel - David Matwijkow
Edith - Jennifer Norkin
Kate - Sabrina Miller
Isabel - Kelli Tager
Grace - Mai Thompson-Heath
The Pirates - Madonna Cacciatore, Scott Hanselman, Derek Houck, Anthony Mannix, Richard Van Slyke, Joshua Ziel
The Police - Derek Houck, Anthony Mannix, Richard Van Slyke


- Sharon Perlmutter






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