If there were a contest for the most British play of all time, “The Pirates of Penzance” would be a strong contender for first place. It is a delightfully silly farce that is a “Slave of Duty” to Britannia — her naval traditions, her obsession with class and the richness of the English language. Luckily, lovers of nineteenth century British farce don’t have to cross the pond to get their fix. Lamplighters Music Theatre has put together a production of this anglophile’s treasure that makes the audience want to rise and sing “God Save the Pirate King.”
Here’s the story: Frederic, a lad of 21, has lived his life as a pirate, despite his own moral rectitude. He has promised to marry Ruth, his pirate-nursemaid. However, he lays eyes upon a bevy of beautiful daughters of a very modern major general and basically falls in love with them all. A technicality is revealed that will make every late-born kindergartner groan with familiarity, and thus the trap is set. True love is tragically thwarted, but everyone knows that can’t be the end. Piratical hijinks ensue, and a troop of the goofiest cops ever conceived are drafted to deal with them. Love conquers all, with a little help from a typically British happy ending where not only does everyone get married, but also everyone marries rich.
Lamplighters’ Frederic (Robert Vann) delivers his lovely vacillations in a clear and gorgeous tenor that fairly throbs with youth and idealism. His youthful grace is an excellent counterpoint to Ben Brady as the Pirate King, who has a grown man’s swagger and bluster to spare. The chorus of daughters seems large, even more so than the play requires. However, their combined choral presence is floaty and well-balanced. Gilbert and Sullivan have a great deal more tolerance for a warbling mob of sopranos than most audiences; director Jane Erwin Hammett and music director Baker Peeples do a marvelous job of keeping the female voices more honeyed than high.
This is nowhere more welcome than in Elena Galván, appearing as love interest Mabel. Saddled with one of the most demanding solos possible for a soprano (“Poor Wandering One”) Galván performs masterfully, with a light coloratura that hits just the right tone in this comedic musical. F. Lawrence Ewing chuckles and frets admirably in the role of Major General Stanley, patter-singing his way through the lingually laborious lyrics for which this play is famous. His one flaw may be his youth, and makeup did little to remedy it. Underneath silver whiskers, the Major General is a relatively undisguised and very young man. This might be less obvious from a few more rows back. Robby Stafford is appropriately silly as the Sergeant of Police, and the ensemble of coppers follows his lead. This is a laugh-out-loud production that still manages to impress.
If there is anything wanting about this show, it is in the technical aspects. Sets are just a trifle drab, and costumes seem to have been chosen more to reflect the period than the tone of the piece. Lighting design is merely adequate, without the moony romanticism often applied to “Pirates of Penzance.” This is a traveling production, however, and a change of venue and equipment can impact that immensely.
The strength of the cast and musical direction is such that this could be performed in plain dress on an empty beach and it would still be well worth the ticket price. Both principals and chorus members bring this Gilbert and Sullivan classic to life with piratical vigor and professional polish. The cast rotates — with all but one of the leads double-cast — but so much talent is evident in the ensemble that it will likely not matter much. With its quick pace, hilarious songs and hummable themes, “Pirates” is an excellent first play for someone who is unsure about attending the theater. This production is enjoyable as well as accessible, serving as a beautiful introduction to old-school musical theater. It is doubly enjoyable to those who come prepared to love the nineteenth-century genius and hearty “Rule Britannia” atmosphere.
“The Pirates of Penzance” is playing at the Bankhead Theatre, Livermore on August 23-24.
Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].