What's going on at the Publick-- O joy! O rapture!-- is an absolutely splendid production of the G&S masterpiece, crammed full of surprising ideas and extravagant emotions, all of this baroque detail beautifully subordinated by director Jessica Kubzansky to the grand design of the opera's creators. Kubzansky has seized as the center of "Pirates" ritual display-- the urge to splurge, outdo, overachieve, in a formally patterned assertion of gendered superiority. This works marvelously well as motivation, whether it animates running off to become pirates or rising through the officer's ranks of Her Majesty's Army or striving for moral perfection as a kind of perfect Saint of Lovers. Love and Honor, opera's usual business, are not only in themselves the source of action and conflict, but they come with an ever present threat of comic obstacles to puncture their aspirations and dowse their fires-- not just the prudent dictates of civilized behavior, but also such petty matters as the fine print of an apprenticeship contract or the homonymous pronunciation of the words "orphan" and "often".
Frederics father intended his brave little lad for a career in the merchant marine as a pilot, but his nursemaid, Ruth, misunderstood and apprenticed Frederic to a pirate instead. Decked out in Nicole Schott's dashing costumes and swashbuckling like stunt men, the buccaneer band at the Publick is just what the embodiment of every lad's rebellious fantasy of freebooting should be-- anyone would be tempted to run away and join them. Their boss, Bill Gardiner's Pirate King, is rather stolid, a leader on dignified side in contrast to his acrobatic underlings. Gardiner is plausible -- but I prefer my Pirate Kings Kevinly inKlined. However, Frederic (Brent Reno) has grown into a handsome specimen who excells at buccaneer skills, but he is also a moral paragon. He detests the sin of piracy, even though he loves his own band of sinners. While celebrating his 21st birthday and the end of his indentured servitude the lad gives his companions warning that from now on it will be his duty to exterminate them-- unless they repent and return to civilization. The pirates decline to repent, and Ruth (Sarah deLima) goes ashore with her beloved young master, whom she expects to marry her in spite of the 26 year difference in their ages. Frederic is willing to accept Ruth's love until he sees the beautiful (and talented) daughters of Major-General Stanley cavorting on the shore, and realizes that compared to them Ruth is old and plain (but what panache!). Frederic casts Ruth off operatically in the duet "O False One" and then offers himself in marriage to any beautiful girl who sees the nobility of redeeming an ex-pirate. Only one girl-- Mabel (Khori Dastoor)-- sees things Frederic's way, but the pirate band swoops down and seizes the other daughters anyway; so, forced or willing, the maidens all are to be paired with pirates.
Bob Jolly's Major-General Stanley is added to the mix, and then a band of not quite intrepid Cornish policemen headed by Jon Blackstone's Sergeant. Jolly and Blackstone are excellent beyond praise, with total command when on stage and a wicked way with an ad lib while mingling with the audience. I have occasionally seen a G&S performance equal to these two, but I have never seen them bettered. Jolly's military rigidity and Blackstone's rubber-limbed shamble are both infinitely responsive-- to music, text, scene partners and audience. They'd steal every scene they are in if Kubzansky hadn't made sure that everything around them was nailed, too. Generally, the director has encouraged everyone in the cast to go for the most complex and extreme reactions, never settling for a single joke if it is possible for the character to play two, and allowing some character listening in the background to toss in a triple take that alludes to a third joke for anyone with eyes and wits quick enough to catch it-- but no lingering or milking, the cast's phrasing is as musical in comic dialogue as it is in song. What a cornucopia of riches!
My one disappointment was with the range and volume of the singing. Everyone in the cast sang well: Dastoor superlatively. I stopped breathing when she launched her cadenzas, afraid to miss a nanosecond of her liquid silver sound. Music director Jonathan Goldberg deployed his forces and transposed and arranged brilliantly to make the most of his limited resources, vocal and instrumental Not The Singers' Fault that Sullivan's score is fiendishly difficult in places and has triple chorus numbers that call for more voices and a wider range than is available. Also, the Publick's choice-- and my enthusiastic preference -- for acrobatic and choreographically expressive staging means that characters hurl or march themselves into positions where the note assigned them in the score will be muffled for at least one section of the audience. The ensemble sounds glorious in "Hail Poetry", where all they do is stand still and sing. One would never have guessed, then, that the composer wrote for vocal forces three times their number. Individually and as a group they perform nobly. But why oh why can't some benefactor or corporation or we the taxpayers give these worthy artists enough financial support so that they can engage at least one more voice in each of the upper parts and two or three more basses to supply that thrilling rumble on the bottom? Thirty years the Publick has been toiling for our aesthetic enjoyment. Boston, you don't force the Pops to play the fourth of July concert without trombones and church bells! G&S performance in this area is a tradition older than the Pops, and in shear artistic merit eclipses what happens on the Esplanade. Now that Nicholas Martin's new regime at the Huntington has turned its back on G&S, as if the magnificent stagings Larry Carpenter did at the Huntington were mere crowd pleasers, not worth a serious theatre's attention-- are we to be deprived of perfection, when clearly with a little help from its friends the Publick also could supply it? Support your local comic opera -- what could be more important?
When Sullivan's music leads, everything follows. Kubzansky and Goldberg highlight the sociobiological fact that vocal virtuosity is a mammalian as well as an avian form of sexual display. Our heroine Mabel hears Frederic's voice before she sees him, and that tenor voice of his is such a thing of beauty, so loud, rich, strong, high and agile, that it proclaims Frederic's natural and absolute Darwinian superiority as a mate over all potential rivals, and in the face of all the artificial disadvantages heaped upon the young apprentice by civilization: viz., his lower middle class origins, his poverty, and his criminal record. Her sisters nearly swoon under the spell of that Alpha voice, but they have just enough socially conditioned strength to resist its allure. But Mabel throws caution to the winds, and immediately launches her own coloratura display to demonstrate that she is a thing of extravagant vocal beauty herself, a worthy mate for this peerless tenor. The most delicious paradox of all is that "duty" or "honor" is also sexual display, as attractive as high c's or c cups. Great deeds, including deeds of heroic self-sacrifice-- are a turn-on. Ravaging pirates are sexy, but so are chaste but loving saints.
Gilbert's brilliant book gives this eternal paradox a spectacular instance: Frederic is bound by his contact until his 21st birthday-- but, as Frederic was born on February 29th in a leap year, it is his duty to remain an apprentice pirate till the age of 84. His "legal" 21st birthday is in 1940! Sullivan's sublimely romantic music expresses the conflict in ascending leaps of longing, iterated fortissimos of assertion, and downward swoons of surrender to forces stronger than self determination. In an exquisite passage in the act two love duet Mabel suddenly realizes that rather than mating with the best possible specimen immediately she is being asked to pledge herself to 64 years of celibacy. I've never seen this passage-- my favorite-- so thoroughly performed as it is by Brent Reno and Khori Dastoor. The couple is young and spectacularly good looking, with vocal and histrionic chops to match, and they bring out every morsel of mingled tears and laughter in the scene. Mabel registers shock and revulsion in a descending phrase after Frederic declares "In 1940 I'll return and claim you" on a repeated g in the middle register. When her love reiterates the same rhythmic demand on b rising to high d, Mabel swoons into submission. The soprano hammers out the terms of her voluntary bondage on a repeating middle g that mirrors Frederic's, and then soars to a higher-than-his F# on "Swear" in an ecstasy of delayed gratification. Then the lovers are off into a giddy triple time celebration of their mutual moral heroism with "Oh, Here is Love"-- which is not only sung magnificently but choreographed to perfection by Kirsten Mckinney. . I wanted to throw flowers and shout "Bravo! Encore!" At the very least, I wanted to see the show again.
Which I did, a few days later, at Turtle Lane Playhouse. There's more than one right way to stage G & S. Besides the Publick's baroque, there is Victorian stiff upper lip staging, which exploits the comic contrast between the elaborate formal diction accompanied by restricted body language that was the social norm in Victorian era England and the extremities of the pirate plot. This kind of staging relies heavily on the lifted eyebrow, the slight roll of the eye, the precise details of dress and of class based deportment, for its comic effects. It keeps emotion at a decorous distance. This approach works-- it seems from descriptions of Gilbert's rehearsal techniques to have been what the author intended. Just get the words out clearly and let the audience do the work for you. Stand pokerfaced as you pronounce "O rapture." Don't drag in extraneous comic bits from the music hall lest you obscure Gilbert's verbal felicities. G&S purists may relish such "historically informed performance", but for most Americans today the D'Oyly Carte style parodies itself, not the original targets its satire took aim at. Audiences coming to G&S from the expressive conventions of "My Fair Lady" or "West Side Story" take the Stand and Deliver style of staging as a cue to laugh at the Fusty Old English, our New World withers unwrung. If audiences must be pedantically well read and historically prepped to appreciate Gilbert's libretto as political satire, there is still another cool alternative to an overheated romantic staging such as the Publick's--- a kind of vaudeville staging, based on English Music Hall or Monty Python or American clowning, where the head and the bum take precedent over the heart, and the "clever bits" are more important than the mythic but improbable story.
Turtle Lane's staging, directed by Paul Farwell, goes for the comic turns over the romanticism, and some of those turns turn out to be very good indeed. Standouts are James Tallach as an elegant Pirate King, whose sleeves are ruffled but whose disposition is not, and Jim Jordan as a perfectly dotty Major-General Stanley. Jordan's butterfly chasing General wears desert gear with pith helmet and knee socks rather than Jolly's red and gilt dress uniform, and Jordan seems to have more crochets, to say nothing of more knees and elbows and general angularity than is the normal human lot. The character Jordan creates is about fifty or sixty years older than the actor performing him, and his gross eccentricities are collected from many eras and locales, but Jordan holds it all together: it works. He got me to laugh in places that never before struck me as funny.
Diana Doyle's Mabel is a much simpler creation than Dastoor's, simply a vocally attractive and a narrowly nice Victorian girl. Doyle's Mabel manages to stay so blissfully unaware of her darker impulses that occasionally the audience doesn't notice them either. .Her Frederic, Chris Mack, has a suitably youthful presence and usually goes for cute; also eschewing passion. Within that choice, Mack's acting is charming and admirable, and in the comic scenes he holds up his end manfully, better than many of the Frederics I've seen. However, some of Frederic's music is just beyond Mack's vocal ability.
The Turtle Lane pirate band is costumed by Richard Itczak for sartorial individuality, from Viking to Arab to fop, and the cast plays this up by accentuating the divide between their unison "hurrah!" type responses and those points where characters react severally, perhaps in conflict with one another. Sometimes this becomes an upstaging contest-- a contest Chuck Walsh usually wins. It is a great pleasure to see Turtle Lane's wonderfully multitalented man of a myriad roles Chuck Walsh on stage again after his recent illness. Walsh's pirate crew member is of the old school, say circa 1700, with jet black curls and a tricorne hat, and with a parrot puppet on his shoulder that becomes another character so that Chuck can play some of his more violent scenes with himself, at the outer limits of individuality. The policemen, on the other hand, have identical bobby uniforms and identical mustaches, and make a virtue of uniformity. Hiding behind the constabulary's facial hair are two singers (Crystal Noll and Eleni Kmiec) who in the first act played Daughters of General Stanley, and whose body language as constables is veddy bobby indeed. But they aren't basses, alas -- so the Turtle lane police chorus has the same problem with Sullivan's bottom notes that the Public has, only more so.
Chuck's wife Susan Walsh usually plays Ruth, but at the performance I saw understudy Deb Poppel went on in the part. Poppel showed plenty of potential, but hadn't sufficient security to ad lib extra business. I've been on stage with Deb: I know she's capable of dazzling improvisation once she's comfortable. The mix and match pirate band also seemed generally to be holding back. I got the feeling that some of their more outrageous pirate pranks went unplayed at this particular mid week performance. But the Turtle Lane "Pirates" even on a off night is a good production of a great show. My eleven year old companion was convinced by the Publick that "Pirates of Penzance" is the best piece of theatre in the whole world, ever; and by Turtle Lane that "Pirates" could be differently done and still wonderful. Alex's enthusiasm was such that he got his Mom to take him to see the Publick's show all over again, and his Gram to get him the Kevin Kline video and a G&S kareoke cassette, with which he has been practicing "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" ever since.
There are critics, and the majority of the Boston critics seem to be of their number, who dismiss "Pirates " in particular and G&S generally as silly piffle, and would take Alex's childish enthusiasm as proof . To such dullards I say, "Poo!" and again: "Poo!" If you don't feel the elemental forces at work in Sullivan's music, if you cannot see the sublime beneath Gilbert's ridiculous, if you are too grown up to acknowledge kinship with the lunatic and the lover, the poet and the prig and the poltroon and the pirate, I pity you. I've probably seen "Pirates" a hundred times, mostly from the other side of the footlights. Done as well as this summer's dueling productions are doing it, I'd happily see it a hundred more