‘The Pirates of Penzance’ brings plunderful fun to Opera Theatre Saint Louis


Opera Theatre Saint Louis‘ production of “The Pirates of Penzance” is a spectacle in every sense of the word.

This bawdy production tells the story of Frederic, a pirate who would have been a pilot if it weren’t for a mix up by his nursemaid Ruth. The screw up has left him as an indentured servant for 20 years with a rowdy group of not so spectacular pirates. Although he has enjoyed being a part of their gang, Frederic knows he is made of better stuff. This leads to his yearning to set out on his own.

As the opera begins Frederic, an affable lad in miserable servitude to a band of misfit pirates, is reveling in his forthcoming freedom. His timing is not the best since the unsuspecting rogues he sails with are in the midst of throwing a wild party to celebrate his twenty-first birthday.

According to the terms of his contract Frederic is no longer indebted to the pirates upon his twenty-first birthday. When he breaks this news to his cohorts they are shocked to hear that he is leaving them. He would love to have left sooner, but sadly when it comes down to duty and honor Frederic goes a little overboard. His sense of pride and duty has kept him around even though he never was into pilfering and stealing as much as his comrades.

Things get even more complicated when Frederic, who is a bit behind in dealing with the opposite sex, lays his eyes on Mabel, the daughter of the influential Major-General Stanley. Upon meeting her he is instantly smitten and vows to stop at nothing to be with her. However to win her heart he also must win the approval of her father, a man with the deepest of military bearing.

When the Pirate King and his men learn that Mabel has equally stunning sisters they set a plan in motion to abduct and marry them. Things fall apart, however, when Major-General Stanley, a pompous oaf with a flair for presentation, learns that the pirates are sympathetic to orphans. Discovering that the pirates will not harm orphans he cleverly thwarts their advances by claiming that he too is an orphan.

Act Two opens with a distraught Major General doing his best to forgive himself for his lie. Frederic, now freed from his debt of service, again relying on his sense of duty, sets out to bring his former friends to justice. He plots with the Sergeant of Police to capture his former shipmates. The Pirate King and his men, learning they have been tricked plan their next attack.

Things don’t get much better for Frederic when Ruth and the Pirate King startle him with some unexpected news: his contract with the pirates does not end when he turns twenty one but only after his twenty first birthday. Since Frederic was born on February 29th this technicality means he is doomed to be a pirate until 1940.

This stunning news tests Frederic and he is torn between his passion for Mabel and his sense of duty. After some grueling soul searching he gives in to the dark side and again falls on the sword of duty. Despite Mabel’s pleading Frederic returns to the pirates who he so recently worked against.

From the here the plot spirals towards an inevitable confrontation. Mabel is determined to keep Frederic from the high seas, the Pirate King and his buccaneers are ready to plunder the estate and take home some meaningful spoils, the Keystone Kops are ready to nab the bad guys and Frederic’s loyalties remain greatly divided. As with other Gilbert and Sullivan productions everything comes together in a climactic crescendo at the end as good fortune leads Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, to intervene and ensure that everything turns out for the best.

“The Pirates of Penzance” was due for a dusting off. Opera Theatre St. Louis last performed it way back in 1983. This performance could not be any more different then that one. Director Sean Curran has put his own stamp on the production with the use of bold colors and bright sets to accentuate the terrific young talent onstage. In his hands “The Pirates of Penzance” is an exuberant production that is not afraid to swash and buckle as it sails the high seas with panache, flair and style.

The Opera Theatre production is also a homecoming for Ryan McAdams, a St. Louis native debuting with the company for this production. As the conductor McAdams’ masterful manipulation of the score keeps the action tight and crisp. McAdams’ scoring brings an added spice of vitality to the production. Glancing into the orchestra pit one can clearly see the maestro having the time of his life.

“The Pirates of Penzance” is such a fun romp because it boasts one the best ensemble casts of recent memory. It’s a young cast of hungry, gifted and talented performers who each leave their mark on the audience with a stunning performance. Setting aside the fact that they all possess immensely powerful voices, this is a unit that pulls out all of the stops with perfect comedic timing, high drama and raw intensity to deliver a captivating production.

As the Pirate King, Bradley Smoak returns to Opera Theatre St Louis to guide a band of tenderhearted oddballs into the breach. His performance is nothing short of amazing, mixing equal parts comedy, drama, deception and bravado with a cavalier swagger that carries the production.

Tenor Matthew Plenk stars as the honorable Frederic. This gifted newcomer holds his own with his costars that are also vocal heavyweights in their own right. Plenk gives Frederic just the right amount of naivety but also brings an inner turmoil to the character that is not easy to convey in comedic opera. He is a rising star whom we will see onstage with OTSL again.

Watching Hugh Russell as the very modern Major General is a delight. In his return to OTSL he approaches the character with great relish and gives charm to a character that is pretty much a blowhard. His solo at the end of Act One is one of the production’s highlights.

Maria Zifchak and Deanna Breiwick are terrific as Ruth and Mabel respectively. Zifchak is a mezzo-soprano with a knack for stealing scenes. Breiwick was one of the most enjoyable things about last season’s production of “Sweeney Todd.” Here she proves that she’s a star on the rise.

Since its debut in 1879 “The Pirates of Penzance” has become a fixture in contemporary popular culture. Snippets of the opera have been used for everything from soap commercials to “The Simpsons.” It stands along with Carmen as one of the most beloved operas written. Having never left the public consciousness it is a show that spans generations.

Despite being well stocked with humor, intrigue and passion this is also an opera with satiric overtones that mock the clumsiness of governmental bureaucracy while exploring the theme of human freedom. Gilbert & Sullivan also used their comedic opera as a way to explore the faults of society. While “The Pirates of Penzance” also serves as a parody of operas by the likes of Verdi, it also holds its own as an inventive work of drama. From a production standpoint it retains many traditional themes of traditional opera (camaraderie, loyalty, duty and honor).

Opera Theatre St. Louis has taken all of this to heart. From the colorful design to the amazing performances it is obvious that this group of talented performers, abetted by Curran and McAdams, has crafted the perfect opener for the season. Their hard work has resulted in a show-stopping production filled with an abundance of wit and tenderness. The ensemble has taken a classic opera and made it completely fresh and innovative by tapping into the infectious energy pervading through every aspect of this production.

This energy and rambunctiousness is not only contagious, it is special. More than anything OTSL has used the production to showcase the amazing talents of the company. Thus “The Pirates of Penzance” is so much more than a reboot of Gilbert and Sullivan; it’s an adventure on the high seas that simply should not be missed.

Performances of “The Pirates of Penzance” are held at the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University.

Friday, May 31: 8 p.m.
Thursday, June 6: 8 p.m.
Sunday, June 9: 7 p.m.
Wednesday, June 12: 8 p.m.
Friday, June 14: 8 p.m.
Saturday, June 22: 1 p.m.
Wednesday, June 26: 1 p.m.
Saturday, June 29: 8 p.m.

For ticket availability and further information please visit Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.


  • Fan

    What a great review! Small note: the conductor is RYAN McAdams, not “Craig” McAdams.