A Consistent 'Pirates Of Penzance'

Operetta Review

Young Victorians' Stage And Music Directors Keep Things At Bryn Mawr Shipshape

July 16, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

There is something gloriously indestructible about the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. The music sounds fresh and charming, even in the most jaded or cynical of times. The plots manage to hold up, even when their seams show, and still generate sufficient interest and humor.

The Pirates of Penzance is a particularly strong example, boasting a felicitous score that reveals the remarkable depth of Sullivan's lyrical craft and his ability to complement Gilbert's clever words imaginatively.

If someone were to propose that is the best G&S work overall, you'd hear no argument from me. And if someone were to propose that the Young Victorian Theatre Company's production of Pirates at the Bryn Mawr School's Centennial Hall is the ensemble's best work to date, I wouldn't argue that point, either.

Of course, I'd have to disclose that I can vouch for only the past nine or so of Young Vic's 39 seasons. But this latest venture certainly boasts the most consistent effort, musically and theatrically, I've heard from the company yet.

On the visual side, the basic, old-fashioned set and period costumes did the job neatly (too bad the theater does not have the equipment for much more than on-and-off lighting). Stage director James Harp makes good use of all the able and willing forces onstage, moving the action along nimbly and engagingly - except when the inevitable contemporary and local references get thrown in to milk extra laughs.

I don't hold Gilbert's librettos to be so sacred that they can't be toyed with here and there, but this company has a tendency to go overboard, to the point of writing new lyrics, a liberty too far. Besides, the additions made here to the famous patter song sung by the Major General in Act 1 sounded more forced than funny. (As for some other shtick interpolated into this number, I confess that a quip at the expense of The Baltimore Sun got a laugh out of me - but please don't tell anyone.)

As Frederic, the "slave of duty" anxious to break his bonds to a pirate band, Nicholas Houhoulis sang Sunday afternoon with admirable technical poise and sensitivity of phrase. As Mabel, the general's daughter who wins Frederic's affection, Joy Greene did not always maintain dead-on intonation, but her bright-toned singing had a winning flair and her occasional embellishments were negotiated with aplomb. Houhoulis and Greene did lovely work in "Ah, leave me not to pine," an affecting duet that ranks among Sullivan's finest efforts.

In that duet, the beautifully nuanced conducting by Phillip Collister, Young Vic's new music director, proved especially valuable. He's a singer's conductor, attentive to line, breathing, rhythm. And that went a long way throughout the whole performance to keep things artistically satisfying. His deft touch put extra spark into the exuberant "Paradox" trio, extra expressive force into the pirates' "cat-like tread" entrance in Act 2.

Among the other soloists in the cast, Jimi James stood out as the Pirate King for his robust, evenly produced baritone and vivid way with phrasing, not to mention dynamic acting. Troy Clark's Major General was an amiable presence. He was at his best in the spoken lines, which had terrific color; his singing tended to be rhythmically uneven and not quite distinctly articulated.

Jennifer Blades, as the Frederic-smitten Ruth, delivered her usual dash of personality and vocal vibrancy. Brendan Cooke did a sturdy job as the pre-Keystone Cops bumbler of a Police Sergeant. The chorus set what sounded like a new benchmark for the company in terms of discipline, cohesive blend and vitality.

The orchestra had some ragged entrances and sounded thin in strong tone, but, by and large, turned in stylish, animated playing that added a good deal to the evening's overall appeal.

If you go

The Pirates of Penzance will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Bryn Mawr School, 109 W. Melrose Ave. Tickets are $36. Call 410 323-3077 or go to yvtc.org.

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