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The Pirates of Penzance 2018 (NYGASP)

This rendition of the sunny Gilbert & Sullivan operetta had some fine comic and musical turns, but also some stale moments.

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A scene from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty” presented by NYGASP at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter Collge (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Mark Dundas Wood, Critic

In The Yeomen of the Guard, the relatively serious operetta that New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players presented this autumn, librettist/lyricist W.S. Gilbert’s signature “topsy-turvy” quality was in short supply. But in the company’s most recent offering, The Pirates of Penzance or, The Slave of Duty, it is in full bloom. This early work from the team’s catalog imagines a world turned on its head. The marauding seafarers in the story are a sentimental lot—their intended victims have only to declare themselves orphans to be released unharmed. Similarly, the Cornwall policemen charged with apprehending the pirates find themselves unsuited for their job because, dash it all, they’re so very empathetic when it comes to the criminal element, whom they consider “erring fellow-creatures.”

It’s a show full of fun, and one of the most popular of the team’s 13 surviving operettas. Many New Yorkers remember the zany and influential 1980 Public Theater version with Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline, which transferred from Central Park to Broadway and was later filmed. That iteration took considerable liberties with the songs, orchestrations and general style of the show. This NYGASP version was much more traditional. It was an enjoyable rendition, though not a perfect one.

In the plus column, it was easy on the eyes. Scenic designer Lou Anne Gilleland created agreeable though not particularly elaborate sets: a rocky stretch of seashore for the first act and a gloomy ruined chapel for the second. Lighting designer Benjamin Weill gave us a kaleidoscope sky that turned lavender or red or some other dramatic shade, according to the changing moods of the story. And Gail J. Wofford and Quinto Ott’s costumes were bright and playful, especially the flouncy sleepwear (Queen Victoria’s Secret?) worn by the female wards of Major General Stanley, the operetta’s famed “Modern Major General.”

A scene from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

On the minus side, there were lackluster elements. The cast, while generally likeable, was uneven. Some performers gave fine turns, and some sequences were pure delight. But at times during the opening performance (reviewed here), the show—directed and conducted by Albert Bergeret—seemed as if it hadn’t quite jelled.

The loony but clever plot involves a young pirate apprentice named Frederic who comes of age (or so he thinks) and determines that he will leave his career as high-seas bandit behind, in order to lead the life of a law-abiding landlubber. He abandons Ruth, his former nursery maid, whose blunder is what got him mixed up with the pirates in the first place. He encounters a love interest in Mabel, one of the wards of General Stanley. But he soon finds himself a “slave to duty”: stuck with the piratical life because of a previously overlooked technicality in the apprenticeship contract.

For most of the principal roles, there were alternating cast members in this production. At the performance under review, the ashen-faced James Mills made the Major General hilariously self-absorbed, jumpy and fussy. Also outstanding was the robust Matthew Wages as the Pirate King. Frederic and Mabel were played, respectively, by amiable Carter Lynch and spirited Sarah Caldwell Smith. Both are musically gifted, though Smith’s voice sometimes got lost in the shuffle. The pair’s second-act ballad, “Ah, leave me not to pine”—a stunningly beautiful Sullivan composition—came off as pretty but not gooseflesh-making. Angela Christine Smith (Ruth) and David Auxier (Sergeant of Police) seemed not fully at ease at times. Perhaps sometimes performers were having trouble seeing conductor Bergeret, as the vocalists and orchestra were not always precisely in synch.

A scene from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

As with the recent Yeomen, this production was happily enhanced by dance sequences (here created by choreographer Bill Fabris). In the first act, a cluster of ensemble members did a clever imitation of a handcar moving along a track. In the second act, there was an anachronistic and very funny bit of razzmatazz showmanship, spoofing the work of star 20th-century musical-theater choreographers in the Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett mode. And the pomposity-popping staging of the fluttery “Sighing softly to the river” showed Mills at his uproarious best: cavorting like a bewhiskered ballerina in a nightshirt and outlandish slippers.

But there were also stale moments of staging, as when Ruth, in her opening number, boringly pantomimed steering the wheel of a ship each time she sang the word “pilot.” Sometimes members of the company pushed the comedy, resorting to over-the-top grimacing. That’s a move that almost always winds up shrinking the comedic quotient further, especially in a piece like this in which so much of the comedy pokes fun at buttoned-down Britons’ politeness and reserve.

The Pirates of Penzance (through December 30, 2018)

New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP)

The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, 695 Park Avenue at 68th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets or more information, call 212-772-4448 or visit

Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission

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