Ceaseless motion, vibrant energy, rampant silliness, and one superb voice among many good ones. These are the substantial merits of the Toby’s Dinner Theatre production of the Gilbert and Sullivan favorite, The Pirates of Penzance.
New York has a key role in the show’s history. It was there – not London – where the show opened in 1879. In 1980, Joseph Papp produced an amped-up revival starring Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline, which I had the pleasure of seeing in Central Park. Toby’s production follows the Papp version faithfully, reproducing its significant successes and occasional issues.
In the century following its debut, the staging of Pirates had become tediously static. Like the 1980 revival, Toby’s production cures that problem with high-voltage movement at nearly every moment of the show. There is scarcely a note of music that is not the occasion for a step, a gesture, a change in facial expression or a bit of swordplay. The cast executes director/choreographer Mark Minnick’s detailed movement plot with precision and verve.
This style has the defects of its virtues. Like music that lacks dynamic variation, movement that is nonstop high speed can acquire a certain sameness if unleavened by an occasional change of pace.
Pirates provides some opportunities, most of which the Toby’s production chooses not to take. Ruth’s “My love without reflection…” is cut; in the lovely chorale “Hail Poetry,” Mabel is made to wave her arms about in the middle of a circle. Even in the tender second act duet between Frederic and Mabel, “Ah, leave me not to pine,” the pair promenades about the stage. Only in “Sorry Her Lot,” a solo for Mabel interpolated from H.M.S. Pinafore, where soprano Laura Whittenberger is alone and mostly stationary, does the motion stop long enough to allow complete focus on a character throughout her song. It is the evening’s musical and emotional highlight.
Whittenberger’s voice stands out. She has exactly the coloratura soprano chops needed for “Poor Wandering One,” which she executes spectacularly well, even while dancing with Frederic for part of the number. She brings welcome decisiveness to her character; this is a Mabel with more leadership qualities than one ordinarily attributes to a Gilbert and Sullivan ingénue.
One interesting example of the production’s faithfulness to the 1980 revival was a downward key change leading into “Poor Wandering One,” no doubt necessary for Ronstadt but seemingly superfluous for Whittenberger.
Opposite Whittenberger as Frederic, Nick Lehan is appropriately dutiful and wide-eyed, with a pleasing tenor voice. He sings and plays well with others not only in his scenes with Whittenberger, but also with Ruth (Jane C. Boyle) and the Pirate King (David Jennings) in their second act trios “A Paradox,” “Away, Away,” and “My Eyes Are Fully Open” (an exceedingly rapid patter song interpolated from Ruddigore with a few word changes). At times, Lehan appeared to be going for the soft pop phrasing that Rex Smith brought to the role in 1980; Lehan has a better voice than that.
In the 1980 revival, Kevin Kline transformed the role of the Pirate King from that of a rather stolid, earthbound monarch into a high-flying, athletic swashbuckler (think Errol Flynn in Captain Blood or Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate). Jennings has the looks, strong baritone voice and physical ability to follow in Kline’s footsteps, though the low ceiling and other dimensional constraints of the Toby’s playing area imposed some limits on his swashbuckling.
With an assured stuffiness and clear diction, Robert John Biedermann 125 successfully puts the famous patter song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” and the rest of his character across. The second verse of his act 2 song “Sighing Softly to the River” is cut, and Minnick deliberately draws focus to movement by other characters (e.g., policemen carrying large flower planters) during the number. These are sensible director’s choices with respect to one of Gilbert’s least enchanting lyrics.
The weakest point of the Papp production was its treatment of the Sergeant and his crew of bobbies, which sacrificed the musical quality of their songs in pursuit of a frenetic, vaudevillian approach to their characters. Toby’s production follows suit. David James as the Sergeant and the ensemble members portraying the police execute the concept brilliantly, it should be said – the effect is something like a really good military drill team on uppers – but there are times, and this is one of them, when the intrinsic absurdity of Gilbert’s situations is better left without enhancement. Playing a topsy-turvy situation straight can be extremely funny.
Being in the ensemble for this production requires hard work, physical endurance, and endless energy, and this group brings all that to the table. Men’s numbers like “Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry” and “With Cat-Like Tread” sound good and look vigorous. Likewise, the women brought a vivacious spirit to “Climbing Over Rocky Mountains” and “How Beautifully Blue the Sky,” and a bit of lyricism to “Oh Dry the Glistening Tear.” For some reason, costume designer Eleanor B. Dicks put the female ensemble in bright red outfits for their first act entrance, which was at least consistent with Minnick’s direction that they carry themselves as anything but decorous Victorian young ladies. Scarlet women indeed.
The costumes for the women in act 2, the pirates, and the principals, on the other hand, were well thought out and executed. The Pirate King’s open-necked, ruffle-collared shirt looked as dashing as could be, the Major General’s non-regulation uniform was wonderfully pompous, and Mabel’s subdued-color dresses with white stripes were an improvement over the white outfits that Mabels often wear.
THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
Closes August 31, 2014
Toby’s Dinner Theatre – Columbia
5900 Symphony Woods Road
2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $53 – $58 ($39.50 for children), includes dinner
David A. Hopkins’ set pieces, especially the pirate ship bits that open the show and the fountain and garden in the second act, provide sufficient atmosphere without impeding the show’s movement. Ross Scott Rawlings’ small band enthusiastically and somewhat raucously accompanies the proceedings.
The underlying strength of the G&S material, the quality of the performers, and the sheer exuberance of the production made this Pirates a delightful experience for the audience.
The Pirates of Penzance. Music by Arthur Sullivan. Lyrics and book by W.S. Gilbert. Based on the New York Shakespeare Festival production by Joseph Papp. Directed and choreographed by Mark Minnick. Featuring Nick Lehan (Freceric), Laura Whittenberger (Mabel), David Jennings (Pirate King), Robert John Biedermann 125 (Major General Stanley), Jane C. Boyle (Ruth), David James (The Sergeant of Police), Jeffrey S. Shankle (Samuel), ColbyKay Callahan (Edith), Tina Marie DeSimone (Kate), and in the ensemble Heather Marie Beck, Jeremey Scott Blaustein, MaryKate Brouillet, Ricky Drummond, Amanda Kaplan, Darren McDonnell, Ariel Messeca, Jonathan David Randle, Russell Sunday, Louisa Rose Tringali, and Carl Williams, with swings Melissa Ann Martin and AJ Whittenberger. Musical direction and orchestrations: Ross Scott Rawlings. Set design: David A. Hopkins. Costume design: Eleanor B. Dicks. Lighting design: Coleen M. Foley. Sound design: Drew Dedrick. Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre . Reviewed by Bob Ashby.
— Guest writer Robert Ashby is a freelance arts journalist and performer.