A listen to Albert Bergeret leading the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players orchestra through the jauntily elegant overture of The Pirates of Penzance, currently being presented in a dramatically uneven production as part of the company’s repertory season at City Center, instantly explains why in 1883 Queen Victoria grandly knighted composer Arthur Sullivan. A listen to W. S. Gilbert’s lyrics when the operetta proper begins instantly explains why the same “we-are-not-amused” monarch refused throughout her reign to make a sir of the witty bloke. As G&S lovers know, the featherbrained plot is full of sly verbal digs at society arrivistes.
Frederic (Colm Fitzmaurice) has been apprenticed to the inept Penzance pirates and their swaggering king (David Wannen) until his 21st birthday. On that felicitous day, he spots a bevy of maidens led by sweetly twittering Mabel (Laurelyn Watson Chase) and immediately realizes there’s more to feminine pulchritude than his plump 47-year-old maid-of-all-work Ruth (Angela Smith). But there’s a catch in Frederic’s coming-of-age that throws a spanner into his plans to wed Mabel despite the misgivings of her father, Major-General Stanley (Stephen Quint). To right the situation, it takes the arrival of a bumbling police squad whose sergeant (Keith Jurosko) is as bumbling as the rest — not to mention an eleventh-hour revelation about the pirates’ true ancestry.
More than that, to reach the happily-ever-after conclusion, it takes a clutch of indelible Sullivan melodies and profoundly clever Gilbert lyrics. (Who else would rhyme “vile lot” with “pilot”?). The music here sounds clear and bright; every melody is honored, and every word is distinct with final consonants treated as if precious objects. Not only does Quint, who’s like a wound spring, rat-a-tat “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” with confident fun, but Chase makes a figurative floral bouquet of “Poor Wand’ring One!” Moreover, the chorus work on “How Beautifully Blue the Sky” and “With Cat-Like Tread Upon Our Prey We Steal” are models of how G&S must be done to have its utmost effect.
Furthermore, choreographer Bill Fabris has abundant amusingly silly notions on how to enliven ditties that have ossified in other hands. Watch, for instance, when in “Cat-Like Tread” he devises a humorous bow to Michael Bennett’s Chorus Line wedge patterns. He also seems fully aware of the cast’s limited terpsichorean capabilities and mostly works within them, although his thoughtfully basic requests are still a bit too much for some members of the eager company. Fortunately, in Robin Mahon, present as primary soubrette Isabel, he’s even got a dancer with a wacky comic sense.
So, when music is afoot, everything’s smashingly right with this Gilbert-and-Sullivan world. Things go thoroughly lead-footed, however, during the book scenes. When these stretches loom, Bergeret (who directs as well as conducts) forgets what the proceedings require in the way of revitalization. He either asks or allows the players to resort to cliched attitudes and wooden gestures that have undoubtedly dogged the Gilbert and Sullivan canon since people decided it must be performed according to a prescribed set of stage directions.
The reversion to stock movement affects just about everyone but Quint and Chase, who keep their wits about them. Conversely, Wannen and Smith, when talking and not singing robustly, do it by the numbers. The urge to be clumsy also runs through the ensemble at the wrong moments; watching the pirates trying time and again to return their swords to their scabbards is an unnecessary focus-skewing activity. But such moments aside, The Pirates of Penzance remains gleefully entertaining whenever Bergeret lifts his baton.