I came to see that W.S. Gilbert was in his own way the equal of his great contemporaries Shaw and Wilde, and that Sir Arthur Sullivan's chirpy and faux-naive music provided the perfect bed for Gilbert's wit.
So I approached The Muny's current production, Pirates! (or, Gilbert & Sullivan Plunder'd), with some trepidation, fears heightened by references to recent movies about pirates in advance notices for the production. Were the pirates of Penzance to become the pirates of the Caribbean? How much of Gilbert and Sullivan would remain? Was it possible to improve on the original? Why bother?
My fears were justified.
This is not to say that you won't have a lot of fun at The Muny. The performances are joyful. Hunter Foster bursts with outrageously hammy energy as the Pirate King, and he's merely the first among equals in his pirate band – keep your eye on the man with the parrot on his shoulder. As Frederic, the apprentice pirate with the unfortunate birthday, Jay Armstrong Johnson makes the ideal handsome, slow-witted operetta tenor. As his lady love Mabel, Analisa Leaming has the voice to negotiate beautifully the challenges of Sullivan's arias, and Nell Benjamin, who penned the additions and revisions to Gilbert's book and lyrics, makes Mabel a woman of advanced feminist attitudes, some of which are shared by her six sisters, the daughters of the modern Major General Stanley. Ed Dixon rips through the major general's patter song – pretty much intact – with portly aplomb. More broad, well-turned comedy comes from Kathy Fitzgerald as Ruth, the pirates' rum-flavored maid of all work.
Director Gordon Greenberg, who with Nell Benjamin and John McDaniel conceived this production, stuffs the show with smart comic bits. He makes clever use of the scenery that Steve Gilliam adapted for the Muny from Rob Bissinger's orginal design. David Woolard's costumes, adapted by Robin L. McGee, also occasion many amusing moments.
All of this is great fun. But I, a convert to Gilbert and Sullivan, kept feeling a sense of disappointment when the proceedings diverged from the original. Gilbert's book and lyrics subtly satirize the attitudes of Victorian society, attitudes not unfamiliar today. While this allows for broad theatrical strokes, a careful discipline supplies the restrictions against which the comedy rebels, creating the laughs. In this production, when Ruth, Frederic, and the Pirate King sing “A Paradox,” about Frederic's birth on February 29, intact from the original, choreographer Denis Jones gives the trio some polite, stiff-backed and very funny steps, a perfect Gilbert and Sullivan dance. But it contrasts, almost painfully to me, with the broad Broadway staging of much of the rest of the production, enjoyable as it is on its own. The band of policemen, preparing for battle with the pirates, are not Gilbert's disciplined but inept parody of the British military but rather the lame, the halt, and the blind. They are funny, but they're like something out of Brecht, or some of Falstaff's recruits in Shakespeare. For me, nothing was added, and something lost, by the voyage to the Caribbean.
So forgive my personal disappointment and go have fun with Pirates! (or, Gilbert & Sullivan Plunder'd) at The Muny.