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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August,2 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 31
High seas hijinks - 5th Avenue's Pirates revival is pure pleasure
Arts & Entertainment
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High seas hijinks - 5th Avenue's Pirates revival is pure pleasure

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE 5TH AVENUE THEATRE Through August 4

The Pirates of Penzance is one of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's greatest masterpieces. Since its premiere in 1879, this 'comic opera' (or operetta) has become a classic of musical theater, supplying a handful of familiar songs including 'I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,' which has become a tongue-twisting classic. The 5th Avenue Theater brings this classic back to the public and does with many of its favorite local actors, and all the bells, whistles and humor that the original masters intended.

The storyline is full of comedy, twists, slapstick, and pure silliness, but it is a fun farce of a time no matter how it's viewed. Young Frederic is a Pirate's Apprentice, bound in servitude until his 21st birthday. On that officious day he is put to shore, where he sees his first gaggle of young girls (the wards of a 'very modern major-general') and falls in love with the eldest, Mabel (Anne Eisendrath). But when a quirk in Frederic's contract is revealed to further commit him to a life of piracy, his duty gets in the way of true love, providing one of the most satisfactory musical scores to date.

The cast is stellar - no question. Broadway actor Hunter Ryan Herdlicka plays the ingénue pirate apprentice Frederic to perfection. This man's cherubic appearance doesn't prepare the audience for the powerful voice that he controls with excellent skill. He brings the requisite naiveté to the role while adding personal charm and sharing it with the audience. It is easy to see why Herdlicka has earned this position so early in his career - he's among the greats of Broadway's musical theater.

TERRIFIC TRIO
Brandon O'Neill has played in many previous shows at the 5th Avenue Theater, but has never been better suited than he is as the Pirate King. His stage bravado fits perfectly with the leader of these gentlemanly pirates, and his shtick and strong voice fit the role like a glove. The Pirate King is a role of comic timing that O'Neill carefully prevents from falling into cliché.

David Pichette, another 5th Avenue favorite, plays the ever-popular Major-General Stanley. His character shows up briefly but always provides a comic presentation with every appearance. He, of course, gets the classic song referred to above, one that precedes the character's appearance and sets the tone for how the character is viewed from there onward. Pichette's presentation of this patter song is most impressive, leaving the audience positively pleased.

Another audience-pleaser is the talented Anne Allgood, who portrays 'pirate maid' Ruth, a woman torn between her duty as a pirate and her dedication to Frederic. Allgood is another example of mastering precise timing, great vocals, and stage presentation all at the same time. Comedy exudes from her with every intentional action or facial expression.

SOLID SUPPORT
The supporting cast (which is quite a major presence) is all excellent and filled with recognizable talents from Seattle's stage. Billie Wildrick, Cayman Ilika, and Kirsten deLohr Helland are just some of the women adding their beautiful voices as the major-general's wards, while Matt Owen, Aaron Shanks, and Matt Wolfe are some of the gifted men playing pirates and/or police (in this version, Canadian Mounties). Any audience member would be hard-pressed to find any of this cast less than perfect, and for any cast - especially one this large and present - that is rare indeed.

James Rocco's direction and choreography definitely need to be mentioned as well. This show presents many scenes for duels, chases, struggles, and fights, and it is all too easy to do these things sloppily. Rocco's vision works well, incorporating a few scenes of well-done shtick and even playfulness with the orchestra's conductor, Joel Fram. The fight scenes thankfully lack that staged look of swordplay, and are played out in 'real time' making for a much more convincing-looking fight.

SO, WHAT'S AN OPERETTA?
While Pirates was originally called a comic opera, it is more a comic operetta. The difference is that opera has continual music playing to mostly sung lyrics, while an operetta - though heavy on music - has some spoken dialogue without music being played. An operetta has more continual music than a musical, which has a large amount of spoken dialogue with songs added to promote the storyline. (Examples: Oklahoma! is a musical; Sweeney Todd is an operetta; Madame Butterfly is an opera.) Either way, don't let that cause any hesitation in seeing The Pirates of Penzance. The music is wonderful, the voices are highly enjoyable, and the easily followed libretto is nothing short of pure entertainment.

The Pirates of Penzance originally opened at New York's Fifth Avenue Theater on December 31, 1879. Sometimes called The Slave of Duty, it marked the fifth collaboration of Gilbert & Sullivan. Although revived many times, it was the 1981 Broadway production by producer Joseph Papp that won a Tony Award for Best Revival, leading to the 1983 film version starring Kevin Kline, Rex Smith, and Linda Ronstadt - all recreating their stage roles from the previous year. The 1982 film The Pirate Movie (starring Christopher Atkins and Kristy McNichol) was a musical based (very loosely) on the original operetta.

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