Review: ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ sings more than it says at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater
By Heather Parish
My husband is not a musical theater fan but has a fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan. That may be because, in some ways, he is a staid Victorian gentleman. He was enthusiastic about seeing “The Pirates of Penzance” at the Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre. (The show continues through Nov. 5.) “I’m always willing to see G&S under any circumstances,” he texted. “It is a fun show, no matter how they screw it up!”
I assure you, dear reader, that they did not “screw it up.” Good Company Players’ “Penzance” is a delightfully sung and nicely staged production, but not without its quibbles.
First and foremost, the singing is excellent. The production’s highlights are the choral numbers sung with full-throated fervor from a (relatively) small choral ensemble. There is a lot of excellent young talent there. The company shines in quintessential numbers like “Oh, Men of Dark and Dismal Fate” and the rousing “With Cat-Like Tread.”
Shawn Williams is in fine voice and better comedic swagger as the Pirate King and looks quite dashing carrying off the part. Mark Standriff, as the Major General, does such a thorough job with the famous “Very Model of a Modern Major General” number; he makes his patter-singing look almost casual. Peter Hartley (Frederic) and Ariana Morris (Mabel) shine in their solos and duets. Michael Fidalgo, as the Sergeant of Police, leads a team of coppers possessing both excellent vocals and comedic timing.
While the vocals can soar, there are also times when they struggle to take flight. Enunciation frequently falters. When asked if they could understand what the actors were saying, our table partners answered, “Sort of. Not really.”
Regarding directing and approach, Laurie Pessano delivers a comedically straightforward production that doesn’t attempt to get too arty or avant-garde with its presentation. It is an excellent introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan for those unfamiliar with 150-year-old operettas. Choreography and staging are playful, and the show’s pace is crisp. This production has a 19th-century vaudevillian vibe – scenes are presented full-on to the audiences with self-aware nods and knowing gestures to the audience. This is a solid production for a contemporary audience looking for something with a little camp and a lot of great singing.
Interestingly, though, William Gilbert, the librettist who also directed the original productions, insisted on a naturalistic acting style in their operettas, avoiding mustache-twirling conventions of Victorian drama and opera. He believed that the realistic presentation style contrasted and highlighted the satire of the lyrics. So when productions like this one go with a more stereotypical vaudeville style, the piece’s meaning can be diminished.
This is my primary criticism of this “Penzance”: the sharp satire is downplayed or completely ignored. Gilbert and Sullivan’s work comes from a “Topsy-Turvy” approach (check out the brilliant film of that name, by the way!), inverting societal expectations and giving audiences a sharp poke with a stick while simultaneously making them laugh.
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“Penzance” is full of criticism of British culture and society: the overeducation of military leaders with no fundamental understanding of warfare, the ridiculous lengths to which a stern dedication to duty can take a man, that the British aristocracy would be more just and humane as pirates then they are as dukes, how coppers are trapped in a quagmire of upholding liberty by depriving the underclasses of their own. The list can go on.
The words are there in this production, but the sharp poke with a stick is not. This production “puts a hat on a hat,” as they say in comedy. Piles a joke on top of a joke, a silly song on top of a silly song, and hopes the result will deliver some substance.
Part of the fun of operetta is the enjoyment of language that counterpoints the music. Gilbert and Sullivan were masters of putting the language and the music in tension with one another, to say one thing and sing another. It’s what makes them geniuses. The audience gets the joke, but the characters don’t, and the world sees them for what they are – puffed up, misguided, farcical, and foolish. The audience leaves the theater wondering if people notice what they say versus what they sing.
In that aspect, these pirates didn’t quite get us to “Penzance.”
Does Good Company Players’ production present Gilbert and Sullivan at its finest? In its singing and choral numbers, absolutely. However, they lack the conviction of the seriously silly, which is its own topsy-turvy paradox.
Heather Parish is a recovering thespian and cheery misanthrope who still believes that theater is one of the best means of living an examined life. @heatherdparish on Instagram.