The story satirizes hypocrisy, morality and loyalty. Frederic, “the slave of duty,” who was accidentally apprenticed to the pirates of Penzance instead of a pilot (as his nurse was hard of hearing) is about to turn 21 and to complete his indenture. Having never seen another woman, he believes that Ruth, his now middle-aged nurse turned Pirate maid-of-all-work, is a prime example. At that moment, a bevy of beauties, the wards of Major General Stanley, appear and Frederic asks if any of them will take pity on a poor pirate when Mabel agrees to love him.
The pirates, however, seize all the other wards. When Major General Stanley arrives, he lies and says that he is an orphan, and the tender hearted pirates (all known to be orphans) allows him, the wards and Frederic to go on their way. The second act (set later that evening at the Stanley estate) deals with the consequences of the Major General’s lie, the announcement of Frederic’s real leap year birthday, and the subsequent happy ending for (almost) everyone with the revelation of the true birth of the pirates.
The score includes the first act’s world-famous patter song, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” deliciously sung by James Mills (alternating with Stephen Quint) as Stanley. In the second act, Frederic, Ruth and The Pirate King have a fun time with the rollicking “Now for the Pirates’ Lair (A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox!).” The Sergeant of Police and the Police Chorus make the most of playing Keystone Kops in “When A Felon’s Not Engaged In His Employment (a policeman’s lot is not a happy one)” which includes the Sergeant’s droll ad libs with the percussionist. The “With Cat-Like Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal” is a rousing chorus with its well-known crashing cymbals punctuating the lyrics.
The cast includes beloved NYGASP favorites as well as some less familiar faces. Coloratura soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith’s Mabel wins a justly earned ovation singing her aria, “Poor Wandering One!,” declaring her love for Frederic. He is played with cheerful restraint by tenor Carter Lynch (alternating with Daniel Greenwood). Bass-baritone David Wannen has a fine swashbuckling time as The Pirate King. Contralto Angela Christine Smith as Ruth gives a memorable rendition of her aria, “When Frederic Was A Little Lad.” Bass David Auxier as the Sergeant of Police deals delightfully with his band of bumbling officers.
The elaborate scenic designs by Lou Anne Gilleland surpass early NYGASP settings. Gail J. Wofford’s colorful costumes put each of the 12 Wards in a different Victorian gown and hue. The lighting by Benjamin Weill includes the sunny Act One on the beach of Penzance, a moon which rises in Act Two on a very blue background, and a sky that turns red, yellow and orange for one of the Police’s production numbers parodying A Chorus Line. Bill Fabris is responsible for the jaunty choreography that accompanies the pirates and the police, as well as the ballet sequence for three of the Major General’s Wards.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance may be 136 years old, but you would never know it from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ spirited and buoyant revival now at the Skirball Center. The NYGASP season continues May 21 and 22 with G&S’s rarely staged battle of the sexes, Princess Ida.
The Pirates of Penzance (through January 2, 2016)
New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 La Guardia Place, in Greenwich Village, Manhattan
For tickets, call 888-611-8183 or visit http://www.nygasp.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission