Monday, October 22, 2012

Faulkner: "The Pirates of Penzance"

It's not often that Montgomery audiences have an opportunity to see productions of Gilbert & Sullivan, the 19th Century masters of comic opera; but, Faulkner University is now showing The Pirates of Penzance, one that ranks with The Mikado and The H.M.S. Pinafore among the most popular of G&S works for well over 100 years, and the only one of their plays to have made its debut (1879) in the United States.

The performance style established by their collaborator Richard D'Oyly Carte's company is prescribed in extraordinary detail regarding movement, musical score, staging, and sets -- something like the prescriptions of some classical ballet. -- Directed at Faulkner by Angela Dickson, with music by Marilyn Swears' spot-on 3-piece orchestra, the 25-strong cast of Faulkner students, alumni, faculty, and community members respect the D'Oyly Carte traditions, but are not slavish to them, putting their own anachronistic stamp on the play and making it more accessible to today's audience.

Subtitled "The Slave of Duty", Pirates tells the story of one Frederic [Chase McMichen] who, on reaching the age of 21 becomes a full-fledged member of a band of pirates; his hard-of-hearing nurse Ruth [Jesse Alston] mistook giving him to a "pirate" instead of a "pilot" when he was very young. Frederic tells the Pirate King [Matt Dickson] that he will leave them and be duty-bound to bring the pirate band -- who, despite their swagger, are a motley crew of tenderhearted men who never hurt orphans -- to justice.

Taking Ruth with him and promising to marry her (she is the only woman he has ever seen till now), when he encounters a bevy of beautiful young women -- all sisters -- he rejects Ruth and falls instantly in love with Mabel [Christina Burroughs], the favorite of these daughters of Major General Stanley [Chris Kelly], and they swear eternal fidelity.

This far-fetched tale soon has the pirates wooing the other sisters, the Major General intervening, and pretty much everyone claiming to be an orphan to escape the pirates' wrath. -- But honor and duty must trump all, causing a lot of confusion and convoluted plotting that will very cleverly be remedied by the end with the help of the local Police Leader [Brandtley McDonald], and his company of Keystone Cops.

Gilbert & Sullivan's brilliant lyrics and melodies carry the plot and themes about social class distinctions and Victorian "honor", or satirize the era's opera trends, so it is essential that they are heard and  understood by the audience. -- The Faulkner actors/singers appear committed to their roles and relationships, producing some sweet romantic scenes, jealous tirades, swashbuckling derring-do, and comical stereotypes, but they are inhibited by the very live acoustics in the theatre. Their accurate diction is most effective in solos, duets, and small group numbers, but suffers in choruses and at times when their lively stage action and/or spontaneous and deserved audience responses render their words incomprehensible.

That notwithstanding, there are a number of performances that brighten the stage. Mr. Dickson struts around the stage with vigor as the Pirate King, and Ms. Alston's long-suffering Ruth is credibly presented. Mr. McDonald's Police Leader's dead-pan attitude and robotic Keystone Cop demeanor [and  his strong & clear singing voice] give him full attention. As the young lovers, Ms. Burroughs and Mr. McMichen make a believable connection, and have voices that enrich the lyrics with intention and clarity. They also play off one another's reactions with knowing glances, and Mr. McMichen's narcissistic swaggering gets the most out of Frederic's character.

In a virtual non-speaking role as the Police Lead Dancer [and chorus member, pirate, et al.], Michael Williams gives the most sustained, focussed, and always in-the-moment performance in this show. Everyone else, take note.

But the showcase number is given to Mr. Kelly. "I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General" is a signature G&S piece: rapid-patter witty lyrics sung at lightning speed by a character actor who knows what he is about. His imposing physical image, his facial expressions, his exquisite comic timing, and his command of the stage bring the house down, and rightly so. It is this that shows G&S the way it is meant to be.