If we can't have Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan will have to do. That is, since American Stage is serious about no longer staging the Bard in the Park, we'll just have to be satisfied this year with a lighthearted, pleasantly ridiculous operetta by those 19th-century giants, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.
Sure, G&S shows can't compare with those by William the Conqueror; but they have virtues of their own — delightful tongue-twisting verse, gently absurd situations, laughable characters and joyous endings. Sitting under the stars at Demens Landing, hearing Jack Eddleman insist that he's "the very model of a modern Major-General," one can almost forget — almost, but not quite — that spring in St. Petersburg used to belong to the Genius of Avon. Well, things change, right? Time marches on. Ring out the old. And yet ... And yet ...
Enough nostalgia: The Pirates of Penzance is a mildly entertaining, mildly interesting experience that's tame enough for the children and silly enough for the childish-at-heart. The revved-up music is rousing, the lyrics are challenging ("I'm very good at integral and differential calculus/ I know the scientific names of beings animalculous") and the various modernizing ideas (highway patrolmen instead of 19th-century bobbies, girls in bikinis, a cordless power drill) are fun, if not terribly meaningful. There's the usual impossible G&S story to amuse the mind, and there are Frank Chavez's colorful costumes to please the eye.
Even with the updates, the satire is pretty much irrelevant — we Americans can't get too excited by a joke about the House of Lords — but Todd Olson's fine direction keeps the stage busy, and the singing voices of at least two of the leads are impressive. If it's not Measure for Measure, it's still better than two hours staring at the same old TV screen. Which means I can recommend it — but not all that enthusiastically. It's OK. Sort of. Mostly.
The story the play tells is about Frederic, a young, law-respecting man who's been apprenticed to a group of over-sensitive pirates because his nursemaid Ruth misunderstood that he was to be apprenticed to a pilot. Now Frederic has reached his 21st birthday, which means he'll finally be free to go his own way. But first he has to fend off gnarly Ruth, who's in love with her charge and who depends on the fact that she's the only woman Frederic has ever met. Ruth's hopes are dashed when Frederic spots a group of (young) bathing beauties, all daughters of Major-General Stanley.
There's a competition for the young man's attention, which is won by bespectacled Mabel (who doffs her glasses when true love strikes). But the pirates come across the girls as well, and are about to commit mayhem when the Major-General arrives and shames them with the news that he is an orphan. The pirates, all orphans themselves, feelingly back off.
But the Major-General's lie eats away at his conscience, and Frederic's plan to attack the pirates with a bunch of state troopers meets a logical dead end. Will Frederic marry Mabel? Will the pirates reclaim Frederic? And who will prevail in the winner-take-all contest of the pirates and the lawmen?
At the center of the story is Frederic, of course, and the good news is that Zack Nadolski plays him with all the wide-eyed innocence that the role requires. Tall, handsome Nadolski doesn't at first look like a naïf, but his acting is strong enough to convince us in just minutes that his life among pirates has been — strangely enough — a sheltered one.
Nadolski also has a good singing voice, which means that when he gets together with Gina Varchetto as Mabel, we're in for some of the better music-making of the evening. Varchetto is a slight, diminutive presence, but she has a robust soprano that gives her character more weight. The most delightful onstage personage is Eddleman as the Major-General; wearing a modern military outfit crowded with medals, he's absurdity itself (long before Ionesco).
Eddleman's singing voice isn't perfect, but he's such an ingratiating actor that it's easy to ignore what seems a relatively minor defect. As the Pirate King, Darrel Blackburn is a funny combination of fierceness and timidity, and as the hag Ruth, Jane Strauss is amusingly desperate as she searches for a way to retain her young boyfriend.
The many actors who make up the pirate crew and Mabel's sisters are all competent, though none stands out.
What does stand out — what should in a G&S play — are Gilbert's inimitable lyrics. Here's Ruth in Act 1: "I was a stupid nurserymaid, on breakers always steering/ And I did not catch he word aright, through being hard of hearing/ Mistaking my instructions, which within my brain did gyrate/ I took and bound this promising boy apprentice to a pirate." Or here are the daughters of the Major-General: "We have missed our opportunity/ Of escaping with impunity/ So farewell to the felicity/ Of our maiden domesticity!/ We shall quickly be parsonified/ Conjugally matrimonified/ By a doctor of divinity/ Who resides in this vicinity."
Even with mics, though, it's not always easy to make out the words of a song above the music. As for group singing, the Sisters are the best, and the Highway Patrolmen are easily the worst.
So what are we to make of this latest replacement for our much-missed Shakespeare? I think it's hopeful that, this year at least, American Stage has substituted one classic for another. G&S may not be particularly highbrow, but they're part of the long tradition of better English-language comedy, and if we can't bring our children to As You Like It, we can at least introduce them to The Mikado, H.M.S. Pinafore and Patience.
In other words, even though this Pirates isn't extraordinary, I'd still prefer more G&S than less. And I'm already disappointed that next year's Park show will be the all-too-cautious, contemporary Altar Boyz.
Somehow this Park thing will have to come right. And I'd like to think that The Pirates of Penzance is a step in that direction.