A seaworthy 'Pirates of Penzance,' thanks to talented U-M Gilbert & Sullivan group
According to Gilbert & Sullivan, “it is a glorious thing to be a pirate king.” Equally glorious, however, is the robust production of G&S’ comic operetta “Pirates of Penzance” that opened Thursday night at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.
The University Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society bills itself as the oldest student-run society nationwide dedicated to performing the operettas of Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. What they don’t say is that it may also be the best.
Over the years, one excellent production has followed another, and the current “Pirates,” zippily directed by UMGASS veteran David Andrews, is no exception. Old G&S would be proud.
In “Penzance,” a band of tender-hearted pirates mark the coming of age of Frederic, who was accidentally apprenticed at birth to the pirates until he turned 21, a milestone reached the very day our action unfolds. As an adult, Frederic has vowed to devote his life to the extermination of piracy - until a leap year complication intervenes. Meanwhile, he rather quickly falls in love with the lovely Mabel, the daughter of dotty old Major General Stanley, even though Frederic’s vocation stands in the way of their relationship. It falls to his aging nursemaid, Ruth, to guarantee the typically happy G&S ending.
There’s no denying “Penzance” is a silly show with a preposterous plot. But there’s plenty of rapier-sharp satire to go with the silliness, and the UMGASS cast seemed to revel in the challenges of W.S. Gilbert’s intricate wordplay Thursday night.
First and foremost, the famous, oft-parodied patter song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” was delivered with expert timing by G&S long-timer Don Regan - looking veddy veddy British as Major General Stanley, complete with white mutton chop sideburns. Perfect.
Other familiar songs got their due as well. “With cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal” and “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment” were particular standouts.
Phillip Rhodes proved the perfect Pirate King, playing his part with obvious relish. Tom Cilluffo was a boyishly charming Frederic, the pirate with a delightful tenor and conflicted loyalties. The amazingly talented soprano Alexandra Kahn made a radiant Mabel, a G&S performance that may be her last as she is about to graduate from the U-M with a Master of Accounting degree. If so, this will stand as the crowning achievement of her Gilbert & Sullivan career.
Lori Gould played Ruth, the piratical maid, with a dignity that could probably qualify her for a role in TV’s “Downton Abbey,” that is if “Downton” was a musical. Gabriel Moss’ sergeant of police, along with his goofy force of flatfoots, were hilarious as they wrestled in song and dance with a call to arms that might well lead to their demise.
Rhodes and Beth Ballbach’s choreography was spot-on and so was the orchestra, directed by Laura Swierzbin. The set design is unusual in that there aren’t any traditional scenery pieces - just a backdrop framed by a false proscenium with the scenes sliding back and forth at the rear of the stage. The approach, by designers Cynthia Lempert and Laura Strowe, is fresh and effectively made this production stand out from others.
I don’t know about the rest of the crowd, but I left Lydia Mendelssohn (following the standing ovation) with a smile on my face and a song (yes, the one about the pirate king) in my heart. I was also reminding myself to mark my calendar in indelible ink for the next UMGASS show, “Yeomen of the Guard,” Dec. 5-8.
"Pirates of Penzance" continues through Sunday. For more information, see the preview article.