Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Scholz-Carlson's gambit is to enact Pirates as a play within a play, set in 1879 onboard the S.S. Bothnia bound from England for New York where W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan will unveil their brand new opera, The Robbers of Penzance. Some background exposition is quickly unspooled: the team's previous work, H.M.S. Pinafore, was a huge hit in London and then in New York. At the time, however, the United States did not afford copyright protection to work originating outside its borders, so knock-off renditions of Pinafore were cropping up everywheresix running simultaneously in Philadelphia alonewith not a cent back to Gilbert and Sullivan. Determined not to repeat this folly, they made plans to premiere their next work in New York rather than London. Onlyand this really happenedSullivan left most of his score in London and had to recreate the whole thing, as best he could remember, throwing in pieces from previous works where memory failed him. Also on the Bothnia were some of the company's actors and musicians. They set out busily rehearsing the show, even as Sullivan was madly dashing off the score, to be ready to open upon reaching New York.
By using this "truth is stranger than fiction" frame for Pirates, this production adds greatly to the opportunities for funwhich is saying something, as The Pirates of Penzance has always been great funand makes the lunacy of the plot seem right at home where reality itself is lunacy. They also create additional opportunities for character portrayals, similar to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, where each cast member plays an actor in the troupe portraying a character in the play-within-a-play. In addition to Gilbert and Sullivan, actual personages depicted are Helen Lenoir, their extremely capable business manager, famed American soprano Blanche Roosevelt, novice baritone Hugh Talbot, and orchestra conductor Alfred Cellier.
As for that plot of the opera, events warrant changing the villains of the piece from robbers to pirates, and among those pirates is one, Frederic. His father wanted Frederic apprenticed to a pilot until his 21st birthday, but his hard-of-hearing nurse maid, Ruth, instead apprenticed him to a piratethe Pirate King himself! Now having reached the age of 21, Frederic is about to be released from his dutya word that takes on massive significance as the story unfoldsas a pirate. Frederic vows to be as virtuous a free man as he was a vile pirate. Further, having spent most of his life in the company of men (other than the frumpy Ruth) he has interest in learning about women. Enter the Major General and his bevy of lovely daughters. Later, in an effort to subdue the pirates, a troupe of police and their sergeant join the scene. Thus is set the cast of characters and the source of mayhem, romance, daring-do and hilarity.
When rehearsals commence, Mr. Talbot is given the role of Frederic and Ms. Roosevelt the ingenue role, Mabel. Gilbert switches off between acting as a pirate and a policeman, and Sullivan takes the plum role of the Pirate King. Because there is a shortage of actors aboard the S.S. Bothnia, Helen Lenoir intrepidly volunteers as both the Major General and Sergeant of Police.
Christina Baldwin scores the biggest win, first as the sharp-minded and sharp-tongued Helen Lenoir, a modern woman ahead of her time, and then as a fabulous Major General and Sergeant of Police. She earns cheers for her swift delivery of the iconic number, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General," racing through the tongue-twisted lines with aplombincluding a verse she added for this production. Bradley Greenwald is a five star ham as pompous Arthur Sullivan and the vain-glorious Pirate King, swashbuckling his way through a festive "Oh Better Far to Live and Die (I Am a Pirate King)." Max Wojtanowicz does not possess the pretty-boy looks associated with Frederic but uses that fact to make his portrayal enormous fun, pumped with energy while still delivering full force with his gorgeous tenor, with an exquisite "Oh, Is There Not One Maiden's Breast?" As Blanche/Mabel, Alice McGlave displays enormous spunk and sings beautifully, showcased early on in "Poor Wand'ring One." Several duets by Ms. McGlave and Mr. Wojtanowicz are so shimmering in the purity of their sound that one forgets this is a rollicking comedy and not a vocal recital.
Elisa Pluhar makes a grand joy out of the never-defeated Ruth, and Zach Garcia is an affable W.S. Gilbert. He and the rest of the cast, who play various characters as well as pirates, Major General's daughters, and policemanCharles Eaton, Elizabeth Hawkinson and Victoria Priceadd lovely voices and great comic timingincluding quick costume changesto the occasion. Brian Sostek is listed as movement and dance director, guiding the nine cast members to the slapstick-orientation of the piece, while maintaining gracefulness, whether in swordplay, cops and pirates chases, or displays of high spirits among pirates, daughters or police.
Ursula Bowden has designed a set that moves easily to become a pirate ship, a cove in Cornwall, the Major General's family tomb, or the pirate lair, with a ship's mast, ladders, platforms and rigging providing opportunities for exhilarating staging. Rebecca Bernstein's costumes are elaborate and depict each characteras passengers on the Bothnia as well as when characters in the operain playfully colorful apparel, while making them adaptable for quick costume changes throughout the show. The show sounds great, with lyrics clear throughout. An orchestra of just three musicians plays beautifully, enhanced in several scenes by cast members adding their instrumental talents.
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote in the late 19th century, so it is no surprise that the content of their shows reflects an imperialistic and sexist outlook on the world. One of the joys of this production is that Scholz-Carlson acknowledges those shortcomings (at least, as seen through a 21st century lens) and treats them in a satiric vein, yet things never become bitter or strident. If you have seen The Pirates of Penance before and thought you might pass this time, let me tell you, you have not seen this re-imagined production. And if you have never seen Pirates, how luck you are to have your first acquaintance with that old chestnut in a production containing such talent, wit and exuberance. I can't imagine a better tonic for trying times.
The Pirates of Penzance, through March 25, 2018, at Park Square Theatre, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance (cash only). For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Writers: Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert, adapted by Doug Scholz-Carlson and Bradley Greenwald, with Christina Baldwin, Sophie Peyton and the cast; Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Music Director: Denise Prosek; Movement and Dance Director: Brian Sostek; Scenic Design: Ursula Bowden; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Properties Design: Connor McEvoy; ; Wig Artisan: Mary Capers; Assistant Director: Sophie Peyton; Assistant Music Director: Joseph Trucano; Conductor: Andrew Fleser; Stage Manager: Nate Stanger; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Diekman;
Cast: Christina Baldwin (Helen Lenoir/Major General/Sergeant of Police), Charles H. Eaton (Mr. Cook/Samuel/Policeman), Zach Garcia (W.S. Gilbert/Pirate/Policeman), Bradley Greenwald (Arthur Sullivan/Pirate King) Elizabeth Hawkinson (Miss Williams/Edith/Pirate/Policeman), Alice McGlave (Blanche Roosevelt/Mabel/Pirate), Elisa Pluhar (Charlotte Cushman/Ruth), Victoria Price (Miss Sinclair/Kate/Pirate/Policeman), Max Wojtanowicz (Hugh Talbot/Frederic).