If you’re a confirmed Savoyard, meaning you are a fan of any of the 14 operettas by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, you don’t need much coaxing to see yet another production of one of the pair’s biggest and most enduring hits. “The Pirates of Penzance” is one such hit, and, being confirmed Savoyards of long standing, we were fully prepared to enjoy the latest rendition of the classic at the Sacramento Theatre Company.
We saw the closing night performance last weekend and are happy to report that despite some limitations in the scope of the production, Director Michael Laun and his cast kept us chuckling throughout the performance with a mostly traditional treatment of the convoluted story that allowed Gilbert’s intended irreverent humor to blossom fully. And we were also pleased to hear Sullivan’s score and music played so well.
Credit for the latter goes to pianist Samuel Clein, who adapted the full orchestral score for himself and three other musicians (Annie Coke on violin, Terry Shane on woodwinds, and Elaine Lord on percussion on the night we attended). Mr. Clein’s arrangements were effective in conveying the complexity of Sullivan’s composition, and his musicians played with a high level of professionalism in making the musical aspect of the performance completely satisfactory. Sir Arthur would have been pleased.
But, of course, any G&S production needs to emphasize the story and Mr. Gilbert’s often hilarious lyrics, and, in Mr. Laun’s tight direction, his sixteen member cast delivered that story with all the humor and nuanced irreverence that the script and lyrics intended.
The story, for those unfamiliar with this topsy-turvy tale, concerns young Frederic, a pirate’s apprentice, who, having believed he had reached the age of 21, thought himself free to leave the “evil” work of his masters for sunnier and fairer game. And in meeting the fair Mabel, he seemed to have secured his eternal happiness, and would have, but for a “calendar issue,” the details of which we’ll leave unstated here.
The cast was headed by Zak Edwards as Frederic and Aviva Pressman as Mabel. Both played their parts as the romantic leads well and sang beautifully. Mr. Edwards is a solid tenor, and Ms. Pressman displayed a lovely coloratura, which is required for Sir Arthur’s arias. Her singing was a definite asset in this production.
The best acting, however, was delivered by Michael RJ Campbell as the Pirate King. From his opening solo (“I Am a Pirate King”), he portrayed the comical leader of the pirates’ cause with a series of facial expressions and perfectly intoned laugh lines as if he owned the role. It was a great performance, one that added as much enjoyment to the production as Ms. Pressman’s singing.
Others in the cast worthy of mention included Gary S. Martinez as the bumbling Major-General Stanley. He made a noble effort at the difficult aria (“A Modern Major-General”) that requires perfect enunciation while being sung at ever-increasing ridiculous tempos. Also effective was Martha Omiyo Kight as Ruth, Frederic’s maid. She enunciated perfectly in her opening aria (“When Frederic Was a Little Lad”), which conveys much of the back story on which the rest of the tale rests.
The first act was very strong, with “Poor Wandering One” (Mabel and her sisters), “Oh False One” (Frederic and Ruth), and the act one finale (by the entire company) standout highlights, along with the aforementioned efforts by Mr. Campbell and Mr. Martinez.
The second act suffered slightly in the presentation of the Sergeant (an otherwise fine Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly) and his band of three officers. Part of the problem was the lesser number of gendarmes. In a full “Pirates” production, there might be as many as eight (or at least six) cast members assigned to these parts, and the added numbers make a difference. Thus, “A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One” lost some of its comic punch as did “With Cat-Like Thread.”
Still the act was enlivened by the trios by Ruth, Frederic and the Pirate King (“A Paradox,” “My Eyes are Fully Open,” and “Away, Away! My Heart’s on Fire”), by the Mabel and Frederic duet (“Stay, Frederic, Stay!”), and by the Finale.
In all, this was a fine “Pirates.” It lost some punch owing to the smaller cast and stage, but it made up for those deficits with strong performances by most of the cast, by obvious directorial attention by Mr. Laun, and by the excellent musical adaptations by Mr. Clein. Additional credit should go to Jarrod Bodensteiner, Renee Degarmo and Brian Watson for their scenic designs, to Jessica Minnihan for the costume designs, and to Jessica Bertine for the lighting design.
For those unfamiliar with G&S, this production served as a good introduction to the mayhem that this form of light opera represents. For those well-versed Savoyards, it was a relatively straightforward and entirely pleasant presentation of a standard in the repertoire.