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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Pirates Of Penzance Comes
Sailing Back Into Town with a Great Crew

Also see Richard's review of Peter Pan

The Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta The Pirates of Penzance is on display again at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and will be presented later at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. The prestigious Lamplighters Musical theatre company is celebrating its 50th anniversary by presenting one of the most beloved shows in the English speaking world. This group is one of the oldest continuously performing theatre companies in the Bay Area and the only one that is dedicated to upholding the tradition of light opera and musical theatre, particularly the operettas of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Lamplighters has won many honors including the Grand Prize at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in England.

Pirates of Penance was the only Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to premiere in the United States and then travel back to the creators' native England. The musical premiered at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York on December 31, 1879, with Arthur Sullivan conducting the orchestra. It later opened in London on April 3, 1880. Pirates is probably one of the best known comic operas of the very talented masters of melody and lyrics. It has been performed countless times by college and high school groups. In fact, I have the dubious honor of having performed the role of the Sergeant of the Police when I was in high school in Ohio. The piece was also presented last year at South Street Seaport, New York, on the ship The Peking in a modern version of the operetta.

Pirates of Penzance is a travesty of serious opera and a satirical burlesque on the romanticizing of buccaneers. The musical defies categorization and has a combination of music including arias, ballades, choruses and four part harmonies. There is sharp dialogue, a twisting plot and clever lyrics. This production delivers it all in spades. The madcap entertainment has softhearted pirates, inept policemen (the inspiration for the Keystone Cops), man hungry maidens and the “very model of a Major General.”

The plot centers around Frederick, a “pirate in training,” hoping to reach his 21st birthday so he can devote himself to exterminating his fellow pirates. Unfortunately, he was born on the 29th of February and his 21st birthday won’t occur until 1940. The complicated plot moves very quickly with such topics as the importance of being an orphan, the meaning of true love and the importance of duty in the Victorian age.

Lamplighters has assembled an excellent cast with a splendid balance between the singers and the full orchestra. Greg Tittle as Frederic stands out in his melodramatic arias. Meghan Conway as Mabel has an angelic voice, and her duets with Tittle are lovely. Ms. Conway is particularly outstanding in the opening number of the second act, “Oh, Dry the Glistening Tear,” with a lovely chorus of girls supplying the background.

F. Lawrence Ewing as the model Major General has excellent diction in the fast patter of Gilbert’s lyrics. Josh Leichtung has a powerful voice as the Pirate King, while Jay Steele and his band of policemen are hilarious in their two songs in the second act. Mr. Steele is both heroic and buffoonish, and the male chorus reminds me of a Keystone Cop comedy. Kate Steinkoenig as Ruth has a bell clear voice, especially in “When Frederic was a Little Lad.”

The pirate chorus is very campy, even for Victorian times, and the ladies 'chorus is divine. When the whole cast blends their voices together, it is a sublime moment. The orchestra, under the direction of Baker Peeples, gives a full and supportive sound. Christopher Walkey's direction is fluid, and he gives the ladies' chorus some wonderful comic mannerisms. Choreographer Jennifer Starkey is on the mark with the movement of the pirates and policemen.

The sets by Peter Crompton are painted flats with a painted backdrop, and they present a pretty picture of Victorian times. The costumes by Melissa Wortman and Michele Wynne are just right from the pirates' outfits to the daughters' dresses. This is a funny and lucid production of this great classic.

The Pirates of Penzance will continue to play through August 18th at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. It will also play at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek for four performances only, August 16th thru August 18th. For tickets to the San Francisco productions call 415-978-2787 and for tickets to the Walnut Creek production call 925-943-7469 or visit www.lamplighters.org.

Their next production will be Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida, which opens at Walnut Creek on January 23, 2003 and San Francisco on February 7th.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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