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The Pirates of Penzance

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Mark Jacoby and Marc Kudisch.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Keep the Caribbean - I prefer Penzance. Who needs ghosts, pieces of eight, and Johnny Depp when you've got seafarers who are equally swarthy and cultured, more orphans than you can shake a motherless stick at, and the likes of musical-theatre vets like Marc Kudisch and Mark Jacoby to do the steering? Even when the waters are rough, as they are a fair number of times in New York City Opera's new production of The Pirates of Penzance, which is running through March 31, you still have to thrash mightily to avoid drowning in the fun.

Granted, that's par for the course for any of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operettas, the most famous and frequently performed of which are so rife with ridiculousness you'd think it was an uncommonly rare commodity in the late 1800s. (Come to think of it, it probably was.) But Penzance, with its irony-drenched view of pirates as fallen noblemen, plot twists involving elements as eclectic as deafness and leap-year births, and Gilbert's unusually intricate lyrics, has always felt closer to American musical comedy than have H.M.S. Pinafore or The Mikado. (Joseph Papp's famous New York Shakespeare Festival mounting of the early 1980s fused the genres more than ever.)

Yet if this is a show where, as a slightly later musical put it, anything goes, that free-spiritedness is not free. It's always easy to go walk-the-plank overboard, and this production's director - like so many before her (and, to be sure, so many yet to come) does her share. She's fearless in her tying of Gilbert and Sullivan to humorists and satirists that both predated and postdated them - John Tenniel's drawing of Lewis Carroll's Alice (yes, of Wonderland fame) makes a cameo appearance, and figures more than a little reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's classic Monty Python animations make many. (The set designer, who otherwise embraces minimalism here, is John Conklin.) And can both Queen Victoria and the moon be seen observing the proceedings from a choice box seat at various points?

There's no shortage of merriment here, whether of the blatant or subtle variety, and that's seldom a bad thing. It does occasionally tend to overstuff the evening - there are more sight gags (and, for that matter, successful ones) during the overture's puppet-styled pantomime dissecting British imperialism than in most whole mountings of Pirates. The show doesn't need quite as much comic help as she wants to give it; Groag might find that, in emphasizing the characters slightly more and her spectacle of silliness slightly less, things would be even funnier. Stranger things have happened (many of them in Gilbert & Sullivan shows).

Sarah Jane McMahon and Matt Morgan.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Even so, Groag doesn't come close to sinking the ship. Actually, in terms of pacing and flow this is a far smoother ride than usual. Groag carries you fluidly from the decks of the ship of the Penzance Pirate King (Kudisch) to the mainland, where the budding romance between accidental pirate apprentice Frederic (Matt Morgan) and the beautiful young Mabel (Sarah Jane McMahon) can bloom, if only Mabel's protective father, Major-General Stanley (Jacoby), and Frederic's own devotion to duty will let it.

It's not recommended, however, that you pay too close attention to Pirates' plot if you wish to carry your sanity with you into old age; you're better off letting the shenanigans come as they may, and enjoying the singers and orchestra for putting up with it all. That's especially easy here, as Gerald Steichen keeps the score firmly in check, rendering a mature reading of the score that has nonetheless been stripped of all stodginess that can't be used to comic effect (leaving a few bars near the beginning of the opening shanty "Pour, Oh Pour the Pirate Sherry" and little else).

Kudisch's blasting voice on numbers like "I Am a Pirate King," Jacoby's Gatling-rattling of an otherwise muted "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," McMahon's sumptuously self-indulgent "Poor Wandering One," and Myrna Paris's as Frederic's outlandishly operatic guardian Ruth round out this production's garden of earthy musical delights. Not everyone reaches quite the same level: Morgan's Frederic would be better served closer to medium-rare than charred-to-a-crisp, and Kevin Burdette pushes too hard to too little comedic effect as the Sergeant in charge of a catastrophically cowardly police force.

His problem is not a unique one - it's a common ailment in anything this madcap to want to do too much. But Burdette and Groag might find some helpful advice in the Sergeant, who knows it's best - when faced with a pack of pirates - to just get out of the way and let them do their thing. And what a wild wallop of a thing that is - here, and always.

The Pirates of Penzance
Through March 31
New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, between 62nd and 65th Streets and Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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