Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of the New Jersey Opera Theatre's production of "The Pirates of Penzance," published by EDGE Philadephia

A company takes many risks when asking opera singers to tackle roles that, though originally written for vocalists with their more classical (and weighty) training, nevertheless require the acting skills more likely possessed by today's musical theater performers. Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance is a case in point - an operetta by the standards of the time in which it was composed - Pirates contains long passages of dialogue, and now more resembles the modern musical than any 19th Century opera.

Nonetheless, the New Jersey Opera made both a bold and wise choice in hiring operatically trained singers to perform in their current production.

Alison Trainer’s portrayal of Mabel is a case in point of both the risk and the reward. Her role demands that she carry an entire melody line by herself through several choral numbers. While the current nasally voices of a musical theatre artist would struggle to sustain the notes her role requires, Trainer’s classically trained (and beautiful) voice handles this task with ease.

The risk of course, is can she act, both sustaining her role as the love interest and the minor comedic demands of the part? Or rather, can any of them act? Here NJO made strong selections all around, not only in the liltingly soft - accented playing of Benjamin Bunsold as the young Pirate Frederic and Trainer’s light handling of Mabel, but especially in the strong acting and singing of the rousing Pirate King played by Brain Ballard, and Alissa Anderson’s awkward and clumsy maid Ruth.

Yet the best reward that these (mostly opera) performers add lies in the depth that their type of singing adds. Although Pirates of Penzance skewers the stolidly British virtues of loyalty and duty, the singing must not appear frivolous, or else the satire fails. In this the production succeeds as well, the opera singers add the requisite seriousness to the music, and their potent voices serve as the backdrop and vehicle for the dramatic comedy. Moreover, they all sound leagues better than the Disney - esque singing currently fetishized by too many musical theatre artists, who sound like twelve year olds with stuffy noses in whatever role they’re asked to play.

However, what this production loses - and through no fault of the singers per se, is the sense of pervasive gaiety needed to perform Gilbert and Sullivan well. While this sounds contradictory, ridiculousness is what’s expressed in a musical such as Spamalot; what Pirates must convey is a sense of lightness (very evident in Sullivan’s music) combined with a whim that borders on, but doesn’t cross over into, melodrama. It should come as no surprise that Gilbert wrote his librettos in the same generation that Oscar Wilde wrote his plays, and the attitude towards life (and British society in particular) is the same in both. However, with few exceptions - David Ward nails this attitude in his "Modern Major General" song - the production lacks this spirit, substituting instead a more modern approach to the comedy.

A few minor detractions also made little sense in NJO’s production. The pirate’s maid Ruth motivates much of Frederic’s behavior early in the first act - he wants to leave the pirates, she wants to marry Frederic and go with him. He’s unsure, as she’s the only woman he’s ever seen, and while despite their age difference is great (he’s 21, she’s 47), he’s partially willing, but still worries, because he’s got a hint that she’s not very attractive. However, Anderson’s Ruth not only looks much younger than Bunsold’s Frederic, but in appearance gives absolutely no reason for any man to reject her (especially when she shows up in her leather outfit in Act II).

A minor oversight, as Scarola probably picked her because of the two things - singing and acting - that she does very well. However, the incongruous choice detracts from the coherence by adding confusion at Frederic’s motivation, especially considering that Scarola didn’t hesitate in casting age appropriately when he selected David Ward to play the Major General, a character of about the same age or older.

But these are minor lapses that only a critic (or G & S fan) might notice, and which never once prevented this production from achieving the one thing Gilbert and Sullivan did thoroughly, which is entertaining the audience from start to finish. Here Scarola succeeds wildly, occasionally updating the jokes, but mostly prompting laughter simply by his very well staged comedy, where even the supertitles become an opportunity for humor.

Yet the major lapse in this production lies in the theme of the piece - the notion that Frederic is a slave to duty, even in the most convoluted of circumstances - which Scarola and the cast fail to illustrate or make clear. Instead, Scarola shoots for a more modern, gag and physical comedy centered exploration of the comedy, which certainly entertains, but appears like a book of short skits unconnected by the dramatic theme.

Part of this is a failure of the dated humor; when this work first premiered, the pivotal moment about allegiance to Queen Victoria probably ripped out stitches, but here, Scarola must substitute a silly prop to get any laughter at all. And part of the failure probably rests on our own time, in which the notion of duty to anything other than our own pursuits is regarded (some would say rightly) as an imposition at best, if not an outright means of moral coercion.

Nevertheless, the amount of audience laughter generated by this production showed that few seemed to care, and unlike most musicals I see, NJO provides a rare treat here, as powerful, musically versatile singing coupled with the equally strong acting from this cast entertainly brings this operetta to life.

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