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Theater Ahoy

ATC's 'Pirates' works due to fine performances and decent direction, but the music is, at times, reprehensible

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Arizona Theatre Company's rollicking production of The Pirates of Penzance is sure to annoy hard-core Savoyards, those fundamentalist fans who believe Gilbert and Sullivan operettas should be performed exactly as they were during the 1870s and '80s at London's Savoy Theatre.

This transgression is to a great extent a good thing. Stage directors who reverently reproduce every original flick of the wrist as it was in the beginning and will be to the end, amen, aren't presenting a living stage show; they're dumping into our laps a pile of yellowed lace doilies, quaint but useless.

Not so at Arizona Theatre Company, even if there are moments when director David Ira Goldstein and arranger Andrew Cooke seem not to trust the material to hold up under modern scrutiny. A few times, they press their revisions just beyond the point of optimum effect. Goldstein has a habit of this in comedy, but this time, none of his tricks fall flat after trying way too hard.

As for Cooke, his job was to reduce Arthur Sullivan's full orchestration to accommodate a nine-piece pit band, and for the most part, he has done well. But compare his work to Ken LaFave's arrangement of H.M.S. Pinafore for ATC four years ago. LaFave worked very carefully within a Victorian aesthetic with great success, whereas Cooke takes greater liberties. Some of them succeed spectacularly through understatement, such as turning the Act 2 duet for the hero and heroine into a mock-18th-century number with harpsichord and cello accompaniment. But a few choices are utterly reprehensible, most sickeningly the way he spoils "Is There Not One Maiden Breast" with a sappy cymbal roll at the climax of every phrase. This was a horrid cliché already 20 years ago, shortly after it became a stock effect in pop music and film scoring, and by now, it's an inexcusably trashy way to add glitzy wonder to a song. Stop it immediately.

I praise the 18th-century bit not because I happen to be a classical-music snob; that's beside the point. It works because it plays up Sullivan's own musical inclinations. Throughout Pirates, he takes great care to poke fun at the conventions of Italian opera. (The chorus "With Catlike Tread," later reworked as "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here," is a direct parody of Verdi's "Anvil Chorus".) Yet at the same time, Sullivan seems to want more than anything to write an authentic Italian opera, more along the lines of the agile Donizetti than the beefy Verdi. The young heroine, Mabel, must be sung by a top-notch colortura soprano, and much of the music swirling around her would be perfectly appropriate for The Elixir of Love or Don Pasquale.

And, yes, Mabel is sung here by a top-notch coloratura soprano, but first a word about the plot. The Pirates of Penzance are a minimally successful band of brigands; their sense of honor prevents them from attacking ships weaker than their own, and any prisoner can win immediate compassionate release by claiming to be an orphan. Young Frederic has been apprenticed to the pirates since childhood. (It was a mistake; he was supposed to have been sent to a pilot. ) Now he's 21 and about to be released to the wider world, where his sense of duty drives him to vow to eradicate the pirates from the English seas, however fond he has become of them. Furthermore, for the first time, he discovers the delights of pretty young women, and falls for Mabel, the daughter of the pompous Major General Stanley. How this all plays out is of absolutely no importance to one's enjoyment of the show; indeed, the conclusion of each act is incomprehensible, but who cares?

Now, back to Mabel. She's portrayed by the marvelous Morgan James, whose voice is both light and athletic, like a gymnast, and who cuts a fine figure as an ardent yet proper young Victorian lady. Michael Gillis makes smart work of the role of Frederic, boyish and earnest yet sensible and even a bit sly. Wendy Lehr brings her usual, welcome rubbery physicality to the role of Ruth, Frederic's love-struck nursemaid. On the subject of rubbery bodies, David Villella does wondrous work as the sergeant of a band of policemen; Patricia Wilcox's antic choreography for him and his fellows was clearly inspired by the Keystone Kops.

Timothy McCuen Piggee is spectacularly right as the Pirate King, a virile fop with a resonant voice. (And, thankfully, he never walks the plank into an impersonation of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, although he looks as if he could at any moment.) The show's big scene-stealer is Gary Briggle as Major General Stanley, who flies with ease through his treacherous patter song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General." (The title barely hints at the tongue-twisters to come.)

Bill Forrester's pseudo-Romantic sets, Lindsay W. Davis' frilly but not ridiculous costumes and John McLain's adept lighting all combine whimsy with sensible craft, and keep the show centered in something approaching reality. In Pirates of Penzance, the approach is just close enough.

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