Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” has pulled back into port in colorful, sprightly and enjoyable ship-shape. Broadway regulars Marc Kudisch and Mark Jacoby bring musical comedy sass to the opera house, while opera-trained Sarah Jane McMahon proves their match. This New York City Opera production is not the “Pirates” of your dreams, perhaps; let’s just call it the very (satisfactory) model of a modern major “Penzance.”
Director Lillian Groag rightly recognizes “the sharp-edged, relentless, particularly British sort of social satire” foaming beneath the fluff of G&S, and she has endeavored to translate this into a Monty Python-ish milieu. Hence, the Pinafore and the Titanic sail by (the latter pursued by an iceberg), Queen Victoria appears serving tea, G&S themselves don bathing costumes, and Tenniel’s Alice sports a black eye-patch. The White Rabbit does too, as do all the pirates and stagehands. At one point, Pirate King Kudisch wears not one but two black eye-patches.
Originated at Glimmerglass last July with a different cast, the production has a go-for-broke, zany anarchy that holds audience attention from the beginning — it starts during the overture, actually — and adds dozens of sight gags to the affair.
But W.S. Gilbert’s satire was rapier sharp. The jokes mount up on the stage of the New York State, but to what point exactly? There’s one of Mabel’s sisters sitting on a beach chair, reading Karl Marx. Another opens an umbrella — not one of those handsome parasols that everyone else is carrying, but a modern black one — with gold letters reading “It’s February.” Groag’s comic inventiveness helps enliven the affair, which makes it welcome; but the comic rigging seems totally independent of Gilbert’s sense of humor. (The sound system being what it is, the surtitles helpfully remind us just how clever “Penzance” is.)
The director is gracefully abetted by her design team. John Conklin’s scenery gives us a proscenium within a proscenium within a proscenium. (This “Penzance” takes place in a theater, with a two-level set of boxes in constant use.)
Jess Goldstein makes the most of his costume budget, impressively so near the end of the first act when the sisters and the pirates — fifty or so strong, it seems — fill the vast stage with color. Lighting designer Pat Collins keeps up with Groag and Conklin, turning in a professional job. Gerald Steichen conducts, and the orchestra sounds very good indeed.
The elephant in the house — no, this isn’t “Aida” — is the ghost of Wilford Leach’s joyous 1980 version at Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park, which cruised down Broadway for a two-year run. This is an unfair comparison, as Leach had five principals capable of more or less stealing the stage from each other for two hours (namely Kevin Kline, George Rose, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith and Pat Routledge). The City Opera “Penzance” is bright and lively, but not that bright and lively.
Kudisch, on leave from the current Roundabout revival of “The Apple Tree,” makes a scenery-buckling Pirate King. He does not command the house like Kline, true; but Kline didn’t have to play to 2,800 people. Jacoby, last seen locally as the trumpet-playing Judge Turpin in John Doyle’s “Sweeney Todd,” demonstrates comic flair heretofore unexpressed. His rendition of Major-General Stanley’s famous patter song is expert, so much so that he seems to be racing beyond conductor Steichen.
As the heroine, Mabel, McMahon picks up the proceedings — which have started to sag — with her high-octane “Poor Wandering One.” Matt Morgan, as the slave to duty Frederic, looks the part though he doesn’t quite command the stage. Kevin Burdette proves an audience favorite as the Sergeant of Police. Burdette has clearly been studying at the Groucho Marx School of Ballet, which seems just right for the policeman’s lot in this “Penzance.”