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The Pirates of Penzance

New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players' lively production plays an all-too-brief run at Symphony Space.

By New York City
David Wannen, Sarah Caldwell Smith,
and Daniel Greenwood in
The Pirates of Penzance
(© William Reynolds)
David Wannen, Sarah Caldwell Smith,
and Daniel Greenwood in
The Pirates of Penzance
(© William Reynolds)
Whenever a Gilbert and Sullivan work arrives, it seems it immediately becomes a candidate for best musical revival of the year. That's certainly the case with the lively New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty, now playing an all-too-brief run at Symphony Space.

At the core of the appeal are, of course, Sir Arthur Sullivan's music and William S. Gilbert's lyrics and libretto, which include the seminal patter songs the pair confected, as well as the show's heart-stopping ballads.

But not just any treatment of the beloved work about a group of orphaned pirates tamed by the arrival of ten maidens and their fast-singing major-general guardian will do. Called for is a cast able to balance the satire and the romance and a director and choreographer who can guide them with aplomb. Equally required is an orchestra able, under an astute conductor, to bring out the punch and prettiness of the songs.

This time, conductor/NYGASP artistic director Albert Bergeret has as near an accomplished aggregate as any local G&S advocate would desire. Beginning with his crisply stirring overture, Bergeret coaxes every nuance and not-so-nuanced phrase from his musicians. He never lets down on the music made by an ensemble seated on stage, his favored set-up.

Bergeret as director also comes up trumps for the most part. Gilbert's silliness -- much of it intended to poke not necessarily gentle fun at Victorian silliness in general -- is more difficult to present than it looks as 21-year-old apprentice pirate Frederic (Daniel Greenwood) declares he's leaving to the dismay of the Pirate King (David Wannen) and to the eventual rapture of Major-General Stanley (James Mills) and, especially, Mabel (Sarah Caldwell Smith), his ward and object of Frederic's affection.

Bergeret gets them all behaving with appropriate comic spirit, minimizing the overly broad mugging he's allowed in the past. He's abetted and even bested by choreographer Bill Fabris, whose patterns are endlessly creative and fun-filled, not the least of which are his eye-catching notions for the show-stopping "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General."

The number's show-stopping effect owes much, naturally, to Mills' expertise at knowing just how quickly to broadcast Gilbert's tongue-twisting words and then, as he builds the turn, just how much quicker he can pop them. Greenwood's tenor and Smith's particularly vibrant soprano make something memorable of their assignments, Wannen delivers his songs with admirable commitment as do co-director David Auxier, playing the Sergeant of Police and Angela Christine Smith playing Ruth, the nursemaid who'd long before heard "pilot" as "pirate" and established the narrative's motivating misunderstanding.

Incidentally, the matinee I attended had been designated, in an extremely clever NYGASP promotion, "Bring Your Grandparents Day." From what I could tell in a loose count, at least several dozen grandsons and granddaughters in single-digit years arrived with their elders. If laughter and applause are the indicators that they usually are, it's probably not too much of a stretch to say many new members were inducted into the G&S fan club.


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