'Pirates of Penzance' Promises to Swash and Buckle

By Miller, Sarah Bryan | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 19, 2013 | Go to article overview

'Pirates of Penzance' Promises to Swash and Buckle


Miller, Sarah Bryan, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


"I don't think much of our profession, but contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest." The Pirate King

Take an apprentice pirate with an overdeveloped sense of duty, a maiden bent upon his rescue, a very modern major general, a hard-of- hearing nursemaid and a pirate king. Mix them with a bevy of beauties, a band of pirates with a collective secret, a corps of policemen with an aversion to heroics, add a colorful production with great singers, and you have Opera Theatre of St. Louis' season opener.

Tuneful and witty, "The Pirates of Penzance: or, The Slave of Duty" is one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most enjoyable operas. In recent years, it's usually been performed with casts more notable for their acting and dancing chops than their singing voices. At OTSL, general director Timothy O'Leary promises, audiences will get all three.

The show is even funnier if you know that Penzance was a quiet seaside resort, that sherry is not the stereotypical piratical libation, and, musically, if you are acquainted with the conventions of bel canto opera. Director-choreographer Sean Curran's production has sets and costumes that are inspired by a children's book, "Pirates Don't Change Diapers," by Melinda Long and David Shannon.

The storyline demands an unusually high level of disbelief, even for Gilbert and Sullivan. Frederic, the hero, was supposed to be apprenticed to a pilot; his hard-of-hearing nurse, Ruth, instead took him to a pirate. He is free of his indentures on this, his 21st birthday, and he tells the pirates of his intention of going straight and seeking their destruction. Conveniently, he happens upon a band of lovely young ladies; one of them, Mabel, gives him her heart.

Unfortunately for Frederic's plans, he turns out to have been born on Feb. 29. Thus, this is not his 21st birthday, and he is obliged, by the duty he puts first, to stay with the pirates into his 80s. (Mabel promises to wait for him.) Add the girls' father, Maj. Gen. Stanley (he of the famous patter song), and policemen who sympathize with their prey, stir in some of Sullivan's best tunes and Gilbert's best lines, and you've got a thoroughly entertaining evening.

"Pirates," which opened in 1879, is the fifth of the Savoy Operas, following "H.M.S. Pinafore." Gilbert and Sullivan had encountered rough sailing with another kind of buccaneer: copyright pirates. At the time, copyright laws did not apply equally in different countries. …

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