Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Pirates of Penzance
Ross Valley Players

Also see Patrick's review of Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter, Eddie's reviews of Hay Fever and Like Is a Dream and Richard's review of Call Me Miss Birds Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman and Company

Norman A. Hall
Summer is the time for fun. At the movies, Hollywood gives us its blockbusters, big on special effects and broadly drawn characters, somewhat lighter on real human emotion and challenging issues. Books with romantic, outsize plots are suggested as beach reads, and television serves up strange new game shows and even bigger does of "reality."

Likewise, the Ross Valley Players have wisely chosen to save their biggest, broadest, silliest—and most entertaining—show for last. Smack in the middle of a gorgeous Marin County summer they are serving us a heaping helping of The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan's gloriously comic operetta. It may not have carnivorous dinosaurs or post-apocalyptic chaos, but it is as delightful and refreshing as a glass of lemonade on a hot July day. Brilliantly directed by James Dunn, with stunning sets and gorgeous costumes, this is the best work I've seen from Ross Valley Players since their wonderful Journey's End last year.

The story begins on the Cornish coast, where a band of tender-hearted pirates are celebrating the 21st birthday of Frederic, an apprentice pirate who is about to be released from his indenture. A young man of noble birth, Frederic found himself in this odd apprenticeship because his nursemaid Ruth is hard of hearing and didn't understand that Frederic's father intended for him to become a ship's pilot.

With his apprenticeship nearly complete, Frederic is ready to sail off into the wider world, where he hopes to get a glimpse of other women, Ruth being the only person of the feminine gender he has ever laid eyes upon. Ruth claims she is a woman of great beauty, but once Frederic gets a look at the five daughters of Major-General Stanley, out for a walk upon the strand, he realizes he has been deceived, and instantly falls in love with Mabel, the most beautiful of the beach-going bevy.

From there the silliness only becomes more Shakespearean, with bumbling cops, pirates who refuse to attack orphans, and a leap year-induced legal technicality that threatens to scuttle Frederic and Mabel's marriage plans—or at least delay them until they are both in their 80s!

From the moment the curtain parts, you can tell you are in for a terrific evening's entertainment. The set by Ron Krempetz is perfection. It establishes a lovely seaside scene, and somehow manages to make the cramped confines of the Barn Theater seem expansive. The footlights and onstage box seating (available for a supplement, which includes a glass of Pirate Punch) give the space the feeling of a 19th century English music hall. Costumes by Michael A. Berg are also wonderful. Flashy and ornate where they need to be, and modest and reserved (with splashes of color) when that is called for.

The cast, for the most part, is terrific. Though the acting and comic timing occasionally leave a bit to be desired, their singing is uniformly solid. As a chorus, they are a potent force, but a few of the individual performers deserve special mention. Phillip Percy Williams as the Pirate King has both a powerful baritone and a delightful comic leer. As Mabel, Joni DeGabriele puts her clear, bright soprano to excellent use.

But the grandest kudos go to Norman A. Hall as Major-General Stanley. When he appears on stage to perform perhaps the most famous of all Gilbert and Sullivan's songs, the fast-paced patter of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," he knows the audience knows what's coming and his face wears the absolute delight of a man who clearly understands he's about to slay you. He is absolutely stunning in his performance. Even if the rest of the show were total bollocks, he alone would make this Pirates worth the price of admission.

There is so much here to love, including the marvelously subtle satire of the English class system, and some of Gilbert & Sullivan's best songs, including "Oh, There Is Not One Maiden Breast" and "Poor Wandering One."

The full title of this show is The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty. It is now your duty to get thyself to Ross to enjoy this absolutely marvelous production of one of the greatest comic operettas.

The Pirates of Penzance plays Thursdays-Sundays through August 16, 2015, at the Barn Theatre, located in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $33 general admission, $29 for seniors (62+) and $17 for children under 18 and students with valid high school or college ID. Thursday night tickets are $27 for adults and $17 for children and students with valid ID. Tickets can be ordered by calling 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visiting

Photo: Robin Jackson

Be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Patrick Thomas

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