The Pirates of Penzance

A new band of Pirates have docked in Pittsburgh, across the river from the struggling, bat-swinging rogues at PNC Park. This superbly cast, visually satisfying CLO production of Gilbert & Sullivan's popular comedy opera, The Pirates of Penzance, is setting its sail at the Benedum Center through July 10. And it is, it is a glorious thing; you will not find a more enjoyable relief from the heat (or rain) - it is a joy from beginning to end.

Mark Jacoby and Crew

Before the 1879 premiere of Pirates, Arthur S. Sullivan wrote his mother, "I think it will be a great success, for it is exquisitely funny, and the music is strikingly tuneful and catching." Sullivan's prediction has come true, as the tale of young Frederic and his tutorial coterie of pirates has delighted audiences in the nearly 126 years since, with lots of good comedy and lovely songs.

As the story goes, eight-year-old Frederic was apprenticed to a ship of swashbucklers due to an aural error by his guardian, Ruth ("pirates" sounds very much like "pilots") who came along as the ship's maid. The members of this seaworthy band, led by The Pirate King, are brave and game, but their sensitive side prevents them from being completely successful as plundering pirates should be. At the age of 21, Frederic seeks the freedom to discover the non-pirate side of life and very quickly falls in love with Mabel, who travels with her own troupe of seven sisters. Their father, Major-General Stanley, seeks to protect his daughters from the pirates, allegiances are tested, and the police enter the fray before all is resolved by the final curtain.

Before the curtain is even raised, however, the atmosphere is set with Anne Mundell's superb set design. The proscenium is decorated with painted billowing striped sails and Jolly Rogers, the curtain shows a beautiful old map drawing, and a semi-circular walkway has been constructed (appropriately roped off) around the orchestra pit. The actors use this area as well as the theater aisles to bring the audience into this fun production. As the ship moves into view, bursting with singing pirates, we are more than ready to be immersed in this very model of a Gilbert & Sullivan treasure.

Having played the Pirate King at CLO in two previous seasons, Mark Jacoby (Show Boat, Ragtime, Phantom of the Opera) resists complacency and plays it broad and flamboyant for a charismatic performance. His voice is strong and rich, and he is accomplished at the comedy, especially the physical bits that make this show such a delight.

Max von Essen
Max von Essen (Dance of the Vampires, Les Miserables on Broadway and CLO's My Fair Lady last season) is charmingly spontaneous and energetic. He seems to flourish in this role and his ebullience is infectious. Yes, he's adorable, but he also acts and sings superbly in a star turn. His "Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast" is excellent. The CLO audience is served a delectable treat as we are able to once again enjoy Christeena Riggs' gorgeous soprano voice as Mabel, a role in which, like Anne in this season's opener A Little Night Music, Riggs is absolute perfection. It's hard to imagine a better voice for this sweet and fetching role.

Patrick Quinn (A Class Act, The Sound of Music) doesn't hold back with his slightly mad Major-General, delivering a crowd-pleasing "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." Ruth Gottschall (The Music Man, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) uses her expressive face to show us the faithful Ruth who, after living with pirates for a decade and a half, is ready to choose one for her own. John Scherer (By Jeeves, Sunset Boulevard) is almost unrecognizable as the Police Sergeant, but delivers solidly as he leads a Keystone Kop-like force of lawmen who seek allegiance to Queen Victoria.

The supporting cast, as sisters, pirates and policemen, are lively and talented. They sing and act wonderfully, as a great ensemble. Standouts include Mark Sanders as Samuel and Laura Yen Solito as Edith.

Leland Ball's direction keeps things going at a very fast but ordered pace. Choreography by Dan Mojica is excellent, with varied dance and movement adding another fun dimension to this production. The 14-member CLO orchestra, led by Tom Helm, provide notable accompaniment.

This group of pirates makes a healthy contribution to a winning season for the Pittsburgh CLO (if only the other local Pirates could do the same). The Pirates of Penzance continues at the Benedum Center through July 10. For ticket and performance information, call 412-456-6666 or visit

The Pittsburgh CLO, Van Kaplan Executive Producer, presents A Newer Version of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. As Presented on Broadway by NY Shakespeare Festival, Joseph Papp, Producer. Directed by Leland Ball. Choreography by Dan Mojica. Set Design by Anne Mundell. Lighting Design by John McLain. Costumes supplied by Harlequin Costume Co. Musical Director Tom Helm. Casting by Barry Moss Casting.

Cast (in order of appearance): Mark Jacoby, Mark Sanders, Max von Essen, Ruth Gottschall, Laura Yen Solito, Rebecca Robbins, Jolene Huffman, Christeena Riggs, Patrick Quinn, John Scherer.

Ensemble: Brian Barry, Zachary Berger, Greggory Brandt, Johanna Brickey, Anderson Davis, Jeff Davis, Case Dillard, Helen Karloski, R.J. Marshall, Scott J. Pearson, Vanessa Reseland, Scott P. Sambuco, Shane Stitely, Matthew Tweardy.

Photo: Richard Guiliani

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-- Ann Miner

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