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.
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