Pirates of Penzance, SF

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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The Pirates of Penzance

Music by Arthur Sullivan
Lyrics by William S. Gilbert
The Lamplighters Music Theatre
Lesher Center, Walnut Creek: July 29-31, 2010
Lincoln Theater, Yountville: August 7-8
Mountain View Center: August 14-15
Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco: August 19-22
Bankhead Theater, Livermore: August 27-29
Directed by Phil Lowery
Music Director: Monroe Kanouse

Jonathan Spencer as General Stanley in “The Pirates of Penzance”
Photo by David Allen

It is very important to enunciate clearly. Otherwise, when you send your son off to be apprenticed to a pilot, he may end up on the crew of a pirate ship instead. Such is the premise of “The Pirates of Penzance” which picks up young Frederic (Michael Desnoyers) on the eve of his 21st birthday when his botched indenture runs out. But Frederic is a “slave to duty” (the subtitle of the piece) and, once he is free, he plans, in the interests of public safety, to lead a police expedition against the pirates who have sheltered him since childhood. Sure it’s silly but it’s Gilbert and Sullivan and, in the Lamplighters’ splendid production it’s also an evening of fast-moving, lighthearted fun.

The G&S canon abounds in tales replete with a bevy of lovely maidens, an older mezzo-soprano who puts a crimp in everybody’s plans and a personage of inflated importance who delivers all those wonderful patter songs. “Pirates” does not disappoint on any of these levels. Ruth (Sara Couden), the aging nursemaid who made the mistake about pilots and pirates in the first place (being a tad hard-of-hearing) has followed her young charge as a pirate maid-of-all-work and now that he is leaving, wants to marry him. But Fred, having compared his nursemaid’s face with those of the young girls who suddenly descend on the beach, decides otherwise. He chooses Mabel (Moira McManus) or, rather, she chooses him. (Ruth will get her revenge in the second act.) Mabel and her sisters (the very capable female chorus) are the wards of General Stanley, and Jonathan Spencer is the “very model of a modern major-general.” So good was he that, in the aforementioned song, Monroe Kanouse’s otherwise fine orchestra was hard-pressed to keep up with him.

Rounding out the cast is the crew of pirates, soft-hearted to a man, led by the Pirate King (a drop dead handsome Charles Martin who probably should have been the love interest except for being a baritone) and a cadre of cowardly policemen, led by their sergeant (Chris Shuford). All roles are double cast for the month-long run, with the exception of Spencer and Shuford. But, from what I heard on opening night, none of these folks needs a day job – and, believe it or not – they all have one. The Lamplighters is largely a non-professional troupe but, after almost 60 years in the business, you couldn’t tell from listening to them.

Or watching them either. Choreographer Erica Smith and director Phil Lowery keep things moving in interesting ways that dispel old visions of D’Oyly Carte choruses rooted to the floor and swaying back and forth. This was one of the best looking and fastest moving productions of its kind I have ever seen. And with songs like “Modern Major General,” “Poor Wandering One” with its impossible trills – executed beautifully – “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not a Happy One” and a tune better known as “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” (well, somebody had to write it), what’s not to like? “Pirates” is sailing around the San Francisco Bay Area throughout August. Gilbert and Sullivan buffs are strongly advised to book passage right away.

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