THEATER REVIEW: “The Pirates of Penzance” @ Ohio Light Opera by Kelly Ferjutz

Through Fri 8/9

According to all the major dictionaries, there are two meanings for the word “pirates.” Strangely enough, both definitions were in action at the original U.S. premiere of this highly entertaining British operetta by those British masters: Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert. Pirates are sailors who attack other ships and steal property from them. A pirate version of something is an illegal copy of it.

Successful creators of any art form are ready targets for persons of lesser creativity or intelligence. So, in the late 1870s, this ultra-creative team were a major target of pirates (second definition above) in both their own country as well as our newer one. They did manage one performance in England before they embarked for the Great White Way in New York, in order to protect their UK copyright.

However, once en route, it was discovered that Sullivan had forgotten to bring the music. No problem; he’d just do it again, which he did, for the successful New York premiere on December 31, 1879. Gilbert helped in the copying of the parts. It was an immediate success, and touring companies were immediately formed. By May 1880, Pirates (the first definition above) was premiered in Philadelphia, Newark and Buffalo, Subsequent performances were in Cleveland, Akron and Columbus. Once back in the UK, they hastily produced the London premiere on April 3, 1880.

In 1980, on our Broadway, Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt set a new record of 787 performances, the longest run ever of a G & S operetta, and it was all legal!

Apprenticeships were a way of life at the time in the UK, although perhaps Pirates was not high on the list of choices. Nevertheless, young Frederic found himself in that role, assigned to this career by his nursemaid Ruth, who was in charge of him. Slightly hard of hearing, she’d mis-heard her instructions, thus assigning him to ‘Pi-RATES’ instead of ‘Pi-LOTS’. At least, these Pirates were a soft-hearted bunch, with major weaknesses toward orphans, leaving them all skirting poverty.

As he approaches the end of his 21st year, Frederick is eager to be a free man. His greatest wish to see other persons of the female persuasion, as so far in his life, he’s only ever seen the somewhat older Ruth. Unfortunately, it is soon revealed that he was born on February 29, meaning that while he has lived for 21 years, he’s had only 5 actual birthdays. He isn’t free after all. Enter the Major General and his eight beautiful, unwed daughters, a police force that doesn’t wish to tangle with the pirates, and you have mad musical mayhem.

Gilbert and Sullivan would surely be delighted with the production at Ohio Light Opera. Stage direction is by the OLO veteran Ted Christopher, who doubles as the Sergeant of Police. Conductor J. Lynn Thompson is another gentleman with vast G & S experience, and between them, they created magic. The costumes by Jennifer Ammons were charming and appropriate, as was the large and spacious set, designed by Charles Murdock. It was wonderfully lit by Daniel Houston, with sound by Tyler Quinn. Choreographer Spencer Reese challenged his company-mates with nimble-footed, clever steps, especially the Major General and the Sergeant of Police.

Boyd Mackus as the Major General was the very model of a modern Major General, in addition to being a caring Papa to his brood of unmarried daughters. He excels at the famed patter songs, adding comic and dancing abilities.

Chelsea Miller as Mabel and Alan Smith as Frederic were both a vocal and visual match. (These two characters plus the Pirate King are double-cast, and those mentioned here were the artists who performed in the opening performance.)

Brad Baron was obviously a Pirate King in a former life, with the stature and the voice to match. Hannah Holmes was a suitably wacky Ruth. As always Ted Christopher adds little personal touches and movements to any role he tackles. He’s the ultimate stage animal.

As an ensemble, the daughters, the pirates and the policemen looked and sounded terrific. The OLO orchestra was its usual marvelous self, performing with gusto and accuracy. All in all, a superb example of musical theater at its best.

The Pirates of Penzance runs in repertoire through Fri 8/9 at Freedlander Theatre on the campus of the College of Wooster. Jerome Kern’s Music in the Air will have its OLO premiere on Thu 7/ 11. for tickets, call 330-263-2345 or go to ohiolightopera.org.

[Written by Kelly Ferjutz]

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