Pirate King, played by Ralph Katz, leads his mates in The Pirates of Penzance at the Wortham Center. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston produced the show.
The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston upholds its sturdy standard and the nonsensical glories of G&S with its thoroughly jolly, musically accomplished rendition of The Pirates of Penzance.
Most popular of the famed duo's comic operas, Pirates centers on gallant Frederic, the “slave of duty.” As a lad mistakenly apprenticed to the Pirate King by his nursemaid Ruth (she was told to apprentice him to a pilot but misheard the word), Frederic as the show begins is turning 21. At last out of his indentures, he pledges himself to the extermination of his former comrades. Yet as it turns out, there's a snag. Frederic was born on Feb. 29 in a leap year and will not reach his actual 21st birthday until 1940!
Onto the scene traipses a battalion of merry maidens, all daughters of the (apparently) incredibly prolific Major General Stanley. Mabel, the most forthcoming, and Frederic instantly fall in love. The pirates likewise decide, en masse, that these beauties will make ideal wives — but the Major General disapproves of pirates, on principle. Add the corps of fraidy-cat policemen Frederic recruits to rout the pirates, and middle-aged, plain-faced Ruth's efforts to woo Frederic, and you have the basic plot elements.
Pirates typifies the modus operandi of G&S: Sullivan's score gently spoofing Italian opera, Gilbert's libretto kidding conventions and attitudes of Victorian England. A certain preciousness and archness are built into the work, along with the cleverness. While some of the content is arcane, much of the humor based on illogic and reversal still holds. In G&S, one finds forerunners of more recent forces in comedy, including Monty Python.
G&S works are inherently traditional and, usually, best handled in traditional fashion. That's certainly the approach of the Houston G&S Society, with D'Oyly Carte alumnus Alistair Donkin back for his 28th summer to direct the production and play the featured comic role of Major General Stanley.
As director, he maintains the tradition with playful business, straight-faced mock histrionics, cute little steps and kicks performed in unison. He does go a shade overboard with a few vulgar touches of physical comedy (Victorian maidens wiggling their behinds and so forth) that G&S likely would not have sanctioned.
Donkin plays Major General Stanley with dithery, doddery authority — the eccentric, arbitrary, ridiculous yet strangely respected British patriarchal figure. His singing is sound and he renders his famous patter turn I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General, if not with absolute virtuosity, then capably.
Joshua LaForce brings stalwart voice and manner to mock-heroic romantic lead Frederic. Allison Greene makes an ideal heroine as Mabel, sweet in voice and characterization, yet just a shade calculating. Despite a hint of strain in her very top note, her strong, clean soprano makes the most of such lilting highlights as Poor Wandering One and Stay, Frederic, Stay, her lovely Act 2 duet with LaForce.
Ralph Katz makes a robust Pirate King, Christy Larimer-Compson an amusingly desperate and repentant Ruth, that “piratical maid-of-all-work.” Dennis Arrowsmith is a standout as a firm-voiced Sergeant of Police, leading his comical cops through the droll When a Felon's Not Engaged in His Employment with limber, acrobatic moves reminiscent of both Ray Bolger and Charlie Chaplin.
Brian Runnels conducts the score impeccably, summoning an orchestral performance of crispness and spirit, yet with proper delicacy in gentler passages. The choral singing is strong throughout. Thomas Boyd's picturesque settings (especially Act 2's “ruined chapel by moonlight”) and Bonnie Holt Ambrose's attractive costumes (the maidens in their pastel gowns, the pirates in their motley) give the production the right storybook look.
Even those who are not card-carrying G&S fans, especially those who've never experienced one of the team's operettas on-stage, may want to sample Pirates to discover what this unique entertainment genre is all about.