“Pirates of Penzance” has fun with words and music from Gilbert & Sullivan

The music is some of the best that Victorian tunesmiths Gilbert and Sullivan ever wrote, and changes very little from production to production. The words are a different matter. But even they are fairly constant. While there are three different librettos to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “operetta” The Pirates of Penzance, the plot remains pretty much the same in all of them, and you can be sure that this is the story that is unfolding on stage at Barrington Stage Company:

In The Pirates of Penzance, when Frederic was as a child he was apprenticed to a band of tenderhearted, orphaned pirates by his nurse who, being hard of hearing, had mistaken her master’s instructions to apprentice the boy to a pilot. Frederic, upon completing his 21st year, rejoices that he has fulfilled his indentures and is now free to return to respectable society. But it turns out that he was born on February 29 in leap year, and he remains apprenticed to the pirates until his 21st birthday. By the end of the opera, the pirates, a Major General who knows nothing of military strategy, his large family of beautiful but unwed daugters, and the timid constabulary all contribute to a series of great songs that will finally be silenced by invoking Queen Victoria’s name.

Given the variations of the libretto, it is likely that director John Rando will do his best to update some of the more arcane words and phrases that crop up and would make no sense to the modern ear. The Tony award winning master of musicals knows how to crank up the humor and satire, and when to toss his director’s hat to Joshua Bergasse, the choreographer, to make the action on stage as seamless as possible. It should be noted that the two make up the team behind the acclaimed and Tony Award nominated Broadway revival of On the Town which began at Barrington Stage.

The cast includes Tony Award nominee Will Swenson (Broadway’s HAIR) as “The Pirate King,” Scarlett Strallen (Broadway’s Mary Poppins) as “Mabel,” Kyle Dean Massey (Broadway’s Pippin, Next To Normal) as “Frederic,” Tony Award nominee David Garrison (Broadway’s Wicked) as “The Modern Major General,” Jane Carr (Broadway’s A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder) as “Ruth,” and Tony Award winner Phillip Boykin (Broadway’s Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, On The Town) as “Samuel.”

Joining them onstage are Jacqueline Petroccia (Sweeney Todd with the New York Philharmonic) as “Kate,” Lindsay O’Neil (The Phantom of the Opera National Tour) as “Edith,” Alex Gibson (Bombshell in Concert) as “Sergeant,” and Darius Barnes, Tommy Bracco, Michael Hartung, Samuel Ladd, Melanie Leinbach, Jeanette Minson, Drew Nellessen, Benjamin Rivera, Morgan Rose, Alanna Saunders, Claire Saunders, Eric Stretch, and Michael Williams.

The Pirates of Penzance features scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Jess Goldstein, wig design by Leah Loukas, lighting design by Jason Lyons, sound design by Ed Chapman, music direction by Darren R. Cohen, fight choreography by Ryan Winkles. Michael Andrew Rodgers will serve as production stage manager, with Heather Klein as assistant stage manager. Casting is by McCorkle Casting Ltd.

Pirates runs through August 13, 2016. The performance schedule is as follows: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Friday at 2pm, and Sunday at 5pm. Please note – there is no 2pm performance on Friday, July 15 or on Wednesday, July 20.

Both single tickets and 2016 season passes are now on-sale and available at www.barringtonstageco.org or by calling 413-236-8888 or visiting the Mainstage box office (30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA 01201). Tickets range from $20 to $69, with limited onstage seating available for $75.

The piece satirizes the snobbery of the nouveau riche in the person of Major-General Stanley;the shallowness of the pose of “respectability “; the exhibition of an over-mature feminine sentimentality; and, in terms of the broadest comicality, the conscientious solemnity of the police constabulary. The Major-General has bought Tremorden Castle and its estate, containing a ruined chapel, and he claims the members of the old family who once possessed the place and now lie buried beneath its crumbling walls, as his ancestors “by purchase,” and their escutcheon as his own. His daughter Mabel shares the paternal weakness; she describes herself tranquilly as “a lady of position.” The head of the band of Pirates admits that he doesn’t think very highly of his “profession,” but adds that,” contrasted with respectability it is comparatively honest.” Ruth, the Pirates’ maid-of-all-work, behaves at forty-seven like a girl of seventeen, and falls like Lucifer in consequence. The Police, on being called upon to exterminate the Pirates, evince considerable apprehension, and when the moment of conflict comes, surrender without striking a blow. The Pirates turn out in the end to be all noblemen who have gone wrong, on discovering which the Major-General immediately offers them his numerous daughters as brides. These young ladies had been too prudish in the first Act to let a man see them with a shoe off. At the end of the opera they all kneel to the Pirates on discovering them to be peers. It is one of the milder anomalies of this diverting story that when the Major-General wishes to shed the tear of remorse for his “taradiddle” to the Pirates, he elects to shed it after dark in the ruined chapel, when the chilly night air is damp and the dews are falling fast!

One of the many vivid impressions left by the opera is of an almost flawless elegance. To this the scene no less than the music of the second Act notably contributes. The crumbling Gothic arches of the ruined chapel beneath which the Major-General sits in his dressing-gown in the moonlight muttering over his ancestors and his escutcheon, make a delightful picture. The joyous “Paradox” trio; the exquisite duet, “Ah, leave me not to pine” for Mabel and Frederic; the rippling orchestral accompaniment to the Major-General’s ballad, “Sighing softly to the river,” and its choral refrain; the irresistible drollery of the fortissimo choral entry of the Pirates to the roared-forth words, “With catlike tread upon our way we steal,” and of the tremors of the Police; and the sudden surrender of the Pirates on being summoned to do so in Queen Victoria’s name-these are a few of the many rich moments with which this perfect Act is sprinkled. In the first Act the famous short unaccompanied choral apostrophe to the Muse of Poetry, sung by the whole company kneeling, is highly characteristic of these operas. It hails Poetry as a “divine emollien” in strains which Mozart might have written. There is a direct allusion to H.M.S. Pinafore in the Major-General’s celebrated patter song in this Act, and an indirect one towards the end of the second. Mabel’s song, “Poor wandering one,” provides the singer with the most dazzling opportunity for brilliant vocalisation in all the operas.” – A History and a Comment, by H. M. Walbrook, published in London in 1922.

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