CLASSICAL NOTES: Studio puts pizzazz in Pirates

Jim Elderton reviews Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, a comic operetta produced by Melina Moore’s Valley Vocal Arts studio.

Brian Martin as Major General Stanley explains to the pirates that he’s still a very modern major general in Valley Vocal Arts presentation of The Pirates of Penzance

Brian Martin as Major General Stanley explains to the pirates that he’s still a very modern major general in Valley Vocal Arts presentation of The Pirates of Penzance

Pirates of Penzance, a comic operetta by Britain’s Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert, produced by Melina Moore’s Valley Vocal Arts studio, successfully ran to sold-out audiences last week.

The title is a double joke. Penzance is a small seaside town in Cornwall, U.K. –– hardly the place where you’d find pirates! The title also refers to theatrical “pirates” who staged unlicensed productions of H.M.S. Pinafore in America.  In those days, U.S. law ignored overseas copyright protection.

To secure the British copyright they performed a quick matinee at a tiny theatre in Devon before the premiere in New York. Actors read from scripts carried on stage, wearing whatever costumes were available.

ßBy opening in New York they hoped to prevent further piracy. Premiered on Broadway in 1879, it opened in London three months later, where it ran for more than a year.

Still performed 130 years later (the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company will re-mount it in 2013), it’s the most popular operetta ever performed in community theatres worldwide.

Frederic (Andrew Nydam), now 21, is to be released from his reluctant apprenticeship to a band of pirates. For, when only eight years old, his deaf nursemaid Ruth (Karen Bliss) had mistakenly apprenticed him to a pirate “instead of to a pilot!”

This, one of several tragic revelations, displays the skill with which G&S parodied grand opera.

Frederic can barely wait for freedom. He’s never seen a woman other than Ruth, and he believes her to be beautiful. The pirates know better, and the double entendres provide the pantomime element that makes G&S so popular.

Frederic invites the pirates to abandon piracy so that he need not destroy them. But the Pirate King (Scott May) maintains that, compared with conventional respectability, piracy is honest toil (“Oh! better far to live and die.”)

On a beach, Frederic encounters beautiful young girls, and realizes that Ruth had lied to him about her beauty (“Oh false one! You have deceived me!”)

He appeals to them to help him reform (“Oh! is there not one maiden breast?”)  One of them, Mabel (Analysa Tylor), responding to his plea, chides her sisters for their lack of charity.

The two fall in love. Mabel’s sisters contemplate whether to eavesdrop or to leave the couple alone, eventually deciding to “talk about the weather.”

A hilarious scene follows, when the remaining 13 daughters (led by Susan Evans, Jeannine Kuemmerle and Vicki Proulx) don outlandish sunglasses and shuffle-as-one across the stage.

This was typical of Moore’s comic inventiveness. G&S had always poked fun at British dignitaries and mannerisms, and it’s become a tradition for new productions to push the envelope further.

The girls’ father, Major-General Stanley (Brian Martin) arrives.  Now an old man, he’s quick to affirm that he’s still “the very model of a modern Major-General.”

This song has become THE quintessential G&S patter song. It’s hard to sing, and it’s sung very fast.  Moore’s direction produced an absolute show-stopper. After Martin successfully sang it as fast as I’ve ever heard, the Pirate King persuaded him to sing it even faster.

In a hilariously choreographed scene with Ruth and the Pirate King, Frederic discovers that he was born on Feb. 29. So he only has birthdays on leap years, meaning he’s just five years old. His sense of duty means that he must remain a pirate till his 21st birthday, and Mabel must wait another 63 years. They sing one of G&S’s most poignant duets:  “Ah, leave me not to pine alone and desolate.”

What tragedy!

The production has a huge cast, and there’s the problem:  with a shortage of adults, some kids had to play way beyond their years. They acted valiantly and with gusto, however, suspension of belief only goes so far.

In the last scene the Major General forgives the pirates:  “Resume your ranks, I’m so glad you’re not thespians!  And take my daughters, all of whom are  (pause)  Presbyterians.”

–– Jim Elderton is a local filmmaker and freelance writer who reviews classical music productions for The Morning Star.