Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Pirates of Penzance at Lakewood Playhouse

An ebullient fromage
by Michael Dresdner

Major-General Stanley (Gary Chambers)   all photos by Tim Johnston 
Last night, in place of the typically understated British comedy, Lakewood Playhouse served up a bouncy, slightly cheesy homage to the well-loved Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance.

Energetic, a bit goofy, and definitely colorful, it was a bit far afield from the well-known D'oyly Carte version. For instance, the pirates in the opening scene were clad not in makeshift seafaring garb, but in a piebald tableau of costumes (Rochelle-Ann Graham) ranging from the ridiculous to the expected. Even the Major-General carried a riding crop instead of the expected swagger stick. Fight scenes and dance movements were on the whole more picaresque than realistic, and often comically exaggerated, as if Monty Python snuck in during rehearsals.

The rather motley pirates 

For those needing it, the convoluted story line opens with Frederic (Fune Tautala), the male lead, on the day his indentured servitude on board the pirate ship ends – when he turns 21, though being a leap year baby, he’s had only five birthdays, a real sticking point later. Valuing obligation above all else, he says he was a loyal pirate but now that he’s free, his hatred of their criminal ways means he vows to destroy them, but not before he points out to the Pirate King (John Munn, who also directed) why they are such unsuccessful pirates. You see, they won’t fight anyone weaker, they lose to those who are stronger, and won’t harm orphans. Yes, you get it; their savvy victims all claim to be orphans.

L to R: Ruth (Sawrey), Frederic (Tautala), Pirate King (John Munn) 

His nurse, Ruth (Kathy Sawrey), the only female he’s ever seen, (hey, he’s been at sea with pirates!) assures him she is in fact beautiful as any woman. That works until he meets the daughters of Major-General Stanley (Gary Chambers), and in particular daughter Mabel (Allyson Jacobs-Lake), the female lead of the play. Ruth also explains Frederic was meant to be a pilot, but she misheard, and apprenticed him to pirates instead, the first of several intentional word association misunderstandings. (This is nautical and before airplanes, so a pilot is the person who steers a ship, not a flying ace.)
The Major-General's daughters 
The Major-General orders the police, led by Sergeant Edward (Derek Hall) to arrest the pirates, (they fail, but no matter) and all manner of mayhem, dancing, and silliness ensues until the lovers unite and everyone turns good, bound by their mutual loyalty to Queen Victoria.

Sergeant Edward (Hall) and his cops 
Technically, the production was excellent, from the deft control of the stage manager (Nena Curley) to such subtle touches as the lighting (Aaron Mohs-Hale) during fades ending with a final spot on the queen’s profile. The unusual set (Blake York) had a generously raised (three steps up) platform thrusting out from a fake traditional proscenium background replete with the obligatory cameo portrait of Queen Victoria in the center top. Inside the arch were several background paintings (Carrie Foster) that slid aside like curtains to change the location scenery.  

What was odd was that the orchestra, an outstanding three-piece group (musical director Deborah L. Armstrong, Gus Labayen, and either Tai Taitano or sub LaMont Atkinson) was in a large square pit smack in the center of the thrust stage. Though possibly a bit distracting, being in the center of the action meant they were able to perfectly monitor both pace and volume. On the other hand, it meant that most blocking, fighting, and dancing was restricted to a veritable catwalk surrounding them.

The singing was, on the whole, stronger when the ensemble joined in, though there were some highlights among the leads. Tautala (Frederic), while more of a musical comedy vocalist than an operatic one, was strong, clear, and easy to understand. Ditto for Sawrey (Ruth) and Jacobs-Lake (Mabel,) though all struggled with the occasional false notes and weaknesses, especially in the lower ranges.

Mabel (Jacobs-Lake) 
Chambers (the Major-General) did a fine job with his signature tongue-twisting song, though his character, with his stuffed teddy bear and slightly mincing ways, was more Brideshead Revisited than Col. Blimp. Throughout the cast English accents came and went more or less as needed, such as during the confusion about the words orphan and often, both pronounced “ah-fin.”

The packed house on opening night seemed to enjoy the production very much, either because of or in spite of its departure from the norm. It certainly served up a healthy dose of bright, enthusiastic energy, and that may be just what we need in these trying times.

The Pirates of Penzance
May 26 to June 25, 2017
Lakewood Playhouse

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