I AWARDED THIS SHOW BEST MUSICAL OF 2009. SEE IT AGAIN AT WILTON’S MUSIC HALL APRIL 2010.
Last night Jason, W and I went to the Union Theatre to see Pirates of Penzance. I’m a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan (not mad like some but there are pictures of me performing in Patience out there) and I’m a fan of the Union Theatre and the excitement that seeing a musical in such a small space creates for me as an audience member. Furthermore, this promised the zest and zing of an all-male cast. Woo! It wasn’t going to be Company, that’s for sure, but it sounded like something that I would enjoy immensely – and at £15 a ticket, it was a great price.
From the start, it pulled me in, as the Pirates (led by Pirate King Alan Winner, a buttery-voiced singer) bounded and bounced onto stage, all bluff and bluster and with ten times the energy I have for an entire month, filling the room with bodies and voices and pulling you into “the show” (and away from dull reality) with a bang. There amongst them (I was pointedly looking for cross-gendered cast experience, but was confused for a bit as to whether or not the person in qustion was a pirate) was the cherry-lipped Ruth (Samuel J Holmes), all fluttering eyes and tattered skirts and as unattractive a 47 year old nursemaid as Frederick (Russell Whitehead) could ever hope to escape. Surprisingly (since I thought everyone was going to camp it up), Holmes was basically doing a very straight job of playing this comic character. (As an aside I thought Mr. Holmes was gorgeous, but I could see by Victorian standards he might not have cut the mustard – not that the aesthetic issues of “men in skirts” kept Frederick from swooning over all the other girls in the next scene.) Frederick himself was also played without irony, which is practically necessary as half the comedy in the character is laughing at how rigid and literal he is – without it, the plot can’t move forward.
Then it was a quick switcheroonie off stage and suddenly the pirates were all back in white skirts and neck ribbons (and plimsoles) and voila we had our maidens! I loved seeing the cast in both roles like this – it added to the comedy – and they actually did a fair job of falsetto singing. Gloriously, lead girl Mabel (Adam Ellis) had a strong high voice that was verging on a counter-tenor. Ellis positively blasted Mabel’s lines out, most appropriately considering he had about 12 other maidens to sing over at times! (Ellis unfortunately didn’t have the clarity of tone that might have come from, well, being a girl, or perhaps actually being operatically trained, but I had no problems with suspension of disbelief as he put the character out well and was a good singer.)
This leaves the question (in terms of leads) of our Major General – a very important role! – and when Fred Broom came onto the stage with his mustache drawn on I about popped a gut. He was the spitting image of my friend Marcus. And of course he sang well – I have just come to expect it from the Union. He managed both gravitas and a quivering lower lip – and he really was a hoot, and darned pleasant to listen to, really doing justice to the role.
But of all of the characters, it was the policemen who just did me in. Instead of the fairly representative costuming of the pirates and girls, for the policemen the costume designer apparently went right for the Dali (or perhaps Magritte) school of costume design – the men (who further whittled down the ranks of the Pirates, briefly confusing me that this was actually a plot point, that Frederick had recruited his former pirate friends to work as constables, thus meaning they had no one to arrest) carried mustaches on sticks to show that they were law enforement officials. They continued holding on to them while they fought the pirates, including when they were on their backs or stomachs with the pirates sitting on them. At one point, they were grinning hysterically behind their cardboard facial hair and I was about losing it because they were kind of freaking me out. It was genius, really.
Oddly enough, I couldn’t remember having seen this show before – though I was sure I must have, but there was something about dumping all of the actors in my lap (more or less) and eliminating the set (well, there were some curtains and a rope) cut out all of the grounding references for me – and anyway, 1998 was a long time ago! Furthermore, I was confused because I could remember several of the songs (besides “Modern Major General”) referenced elsewhere, though God knows where I heard “How Beautifully Blue the Sky” (I remember “With Cat-like Tread” from Annex Theater in Seattle).
The thing is, in this intimate space, I could hear and understand pretty much every word that came out of the actors’ mouths, a critical thing for G&S. On big stages, the words get lost, and losing even 20% is a real problem in following along. But at the Union I could see the actors speaking, and when I couldn’t understand just by listening (if I were, say, distracted by something silly going on toward the rear of the stage), watching would shape it right up. That means that even for the patter songs I was able to laugh at almost every joke. And this made it practically a new show for me – not bad for a production that’s well over 100 years old.
A lot of what made this show so lively, though, was the staging. From the suggestive way Ruth fed a carrot to the Major General’s pushbroom hobby horse to the spankings to the extremely lewd fondling of one of the “maidens” by her pirate captors, the cast took advantage of one opportunity after another to make this play fun to watch as well as to listen to. I think G&S dies by its chorus, rather than its leads, and Pirates had everything to be proud of in terms of providing full-stage action.
Based on the number of times I looked over and saw the rather poorly W laughing his face off, I think we can consider this show a success. It helps that Pirates is a funny, witty show with a fantastic libretto; but Union made a show that too often seems dusty as a pharaoh’s tomb genius, with an energetic cast that paid attention to the bones of the show while having a great time playing with the presentation. I’m glad I rushed to see it in its first week, because chances are, like every other musical the Union Theatre has put on, this is going to be another sell out. Nice job, guys!
(Pirates continues at the Union Theatre through August 8th. For more information on this show, please see the Boise State Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, which includes all of the lyrics and tons of other supporting material.)