Hal Linden in The Pirates of Penzance(Photo © Lee Snider)
Hal Linden in The Pirates of Penzance
(Photo © Lee Snider)
Albert Bergeret is credited as stage director (and musical director and conductor) of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of The Pirates of Penzance, but one would swear that there's a personnel change during the intermission. For most of the first act, the staging and playing of this G&S classic are dutiful and mostly by the numbers. The pirate crew swaggers about on Lou Anne Gilleland's papier-mâchè-looking set without much freshness or individuality. Angela Smith as Ruth, the piratical maid-of-all-work, rolls her Rs ostentatiously and hits the right contralto notes without ever making the part truly her own. Ross David Crutchlow as the Pirate King does nothing to erase memories of Kevin Kline in the Joseph Papp-WIlford Leach-New York Shakespeare Festival version of a couple of decades ago -- which, for many, will always be the gold standard Pirates for its cheeky, convention-flouting reimagining of this durable work. Hal Linden, guest starring as Major General Stanley, offers a tentative, mostly talk-sung "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General"; he puts you in mind of an opera superstar flown in on the day of a performance, lending class and star quality to the proceedings but not really connecting with the rest of the company. The chorus of General Stanley's numerous daughters is as lacking in distinct personalities as their pirate counterparts. And, one modern jest about the Homeland Security Deptartment aside, there's virtually no tampering with the text.

For the duration of Act I, this is a safe, orthodox Pirates. Its three major assets are Bergeret's crisp, clean conducting of the 25-piece orchestra; Andrew MacPhail's Frederic, a mischievous, handsome juvenile with everything required for the part but secure top notes; and Laurelyn Watson's Mabel. The pretty Watson shares with MacPhail a sense of fun and freedom that make the pair seem fated for each other (you never know quite what attitude either is going to strike next), and her soprano is as strong and lustrous as Sir Arthur could wish. Of course, The Pirates of Penzance is practically indestructible; for the most part, Gilbert's authority-mocking satire and Sullivan's gleaming melodic instinct are well served by NYGASP. But despite MacPhail, Watson, and some fine sounds from Bergeret's orchestra pit, one spends the first hour of this Pirates looking for something special, something outrageous, a bit of business or a breakout performance that will distinguish it from a thousand others.

Then, in Act II, Keith Jurosko's Sergeant of Police leads his bobby crew from stage right to stage left and directly off, for this police force is inept as the NYPD during the Republican Convention. And Bergeret, who seemed stuck for ideas in the first act, suddenly can't stop coming up with them. The staging turns clever and playful, ably amplifying the G&S wit. Consider my favorite Pirates moment, when Frederic tells Mabel that, for Byzantine plot reasons, he can't marry her for another 63 years. (He was born on February 29 in Leap Year and is apprenticed to the pirates until his 21st birthday, which technically won't be until 1940.) In the New York Shakespeare Festival production, Linda Ronstadt's Mabel glanced downstage, batted her doe eyes at the audience, and murmured, "It seems so long." It was a lovely, fractured-fairytale moment. Watson plays it differently, almost throwing the line away, but her clipped reading lets the full absurdity of the situation bubble to the surface -- so much so that, at the performance I attended, children in the audience giggled with delight. (Good thing; get 'em while they're young and musical theater may have a future yet.)

The surprises keep coming. Linden, wearing the silliest bedroom slippers in the history of the theater, lands "Sighing Softly to the River" with the acumen of a 767 pilot. The Keystone Kops-like exploits of the police force multiply and grow richer in humor. Bill Fabris' choreography, which had been strictly step-kick-turn, suddenly has purpose and spirit, employing everything from Michael Bennett flash to slapstick ballet. The atmosphere is so zany and supercharged that, as in the best of farce, each laugh helps foment the next. By the happy, logic-defying fadeout, we're giddy with pleasure.

In sum, this is a nimble, well-judged, extremely well-sung Pirates that builds up quite a head of steam in its latter half. It's too bad that security at City Center is so tight, for I can recall few shows that have lent themselves so well to second-acting.