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The Pirates of Penzance

Lillian Groag's excessively jokey NYCO production of Gilbert and Sullivan's beloved operetta almost overwhelms all the fine acting and singing. logo
Mark Jacoby and Marc Kudisch in The Pirates of Penzance
(© Carol Rosegg)
Should one read Lillian Groag's director's note before the curtain rises on the New York City Opera's new production of The Pirates of Penzance -- in which she states, "I see the whimsical wit and outrageous fun of Gilbert and Sullivan as 'book-ended' by the humor of Lewis Carroll and that of Monty Python" -- one may actually be prepared for the cardboard cutout of an eye patch-wearing Alice or the oversized, Python-like cardboard representation of British literary figures that pop up here and there on the stage of the New York State Theater.

But nothing in Groag's four-paragraph treatise can fully prepare the audience or adequately explain the mind-numbing amount of excessively jokey and often anachronistic touches she's thrown into this operetta, from a prologue that includes the Titanic being sunk to janitors wearing shirts that say 'D'Oyly Carte' (the British troupe that first performed Pirates) to Queen Victoria serving tea to a gaggle of young ladies (nicely costumed by Jess Goldstein). While a few of Groag's gags hit the target, all this visual clutter mostly distracts from and occasionally overwhelms the well-sung and well-acted proceedings at hand.

Perhaps it's unfair to expect any director in 2007 to simply present the oft-staged Pirates without a so-called concept, but having put together a rather nifty cast -- including Broadway stars Marc Kudisch as the Pirate King and Mark Jacoby as General Stanley -- Groag would have been wise to leave well enough alone. For when the performers are allowed to convey the brilliant wit and infectious melodies of this clever-yet-supremely silly operetta, the results are decidedly felicitous.

The strong-voiced Kudisch, who would seem a natural fit for the slightly dopey, vain King, appears to be having a great deal of fun on stage -- and his affection for the role extends all the way out into the audience. Often a master of larger-than-life performances on the Great White Way, he actually seems a tad subdued here, especially in the earlier sequences; but he comes more into his own in the second act. Jacoby, who has primarily shone in dramatic parts such as Father in Ragtime and Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, proves to have considerable comic chops, offering a fine version of the notoriously difficult (and notoriously fast) patter song "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General."

Kudisch and Jacoby blend well with the rest of the principals, opera singers all, who manage to outshine the folderol around them. Sarah Jane McMahon is a particularly spirited, fetching, and athletic Mabel. She beautifully handles her first-act solo, "Poor wandering one," and her singing is rarely less than first-rate. (The same can't be said for Erin Elizabeth Smith, who makes a somewhat unfavorable impression as her sister Edith.)

The delicate and adorable Matt Morgan -- sounding most convincingly British despite his Louisiana roots -- perfectly captures the good-hearted and slightly dim-witted Frederic, Mabel's love interest and the duty-bound apprentice to the Pirate King. Providing excellent comic relief and commanding the stage are Kevin Burdette as the seemingly lily-livered Sergeant of Police and NYCO stalwart Myrna Paris as Frederic's love-struck nursery maid Ruth. Conversely, some members of the rather too large and way too motley chorus seem far too interested in trying to upstage the stars.

I truly wish that the program had included a set designer's note to elucidate what was going on in John Conklin's head. If one didn't know better, one would suspect that Conklin was forced at the last minute to rummage through City Opera's warehouse and throw together bits and pieces of designs from other productions. How else to explain the odd red backdrop that flies down for a pivotal scene between Frederic and Ruth, or the faux-Grecian columns permanently planted at stage left?

Despite Groag and Conklin's many misguided decisions, this Pirates touches both the heart and the funny bone frequently enough to make a visit to New York City Opera worthwhile, if far from necessary.

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