Saturday, April 16, 2022

NYGASP's ‘The Pirates of Penzance’: A Gilbert & Sullivan Classic Done to a Turn

Sarah Caldwell Smith leads “The Pirates of Penzance” ensemble in “Poor Wand’ring One.”


today’s world filled with strife and angry disagreement, it is a pleasure to see an entirely lighthearted theatrical performance. Opposite sides each have their say. Conundrums are resolved and the audience gets two-plus wonderful hours of escapism.

Thanks goes to “The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty” in its brief run at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. With music by Sir Arthur Sullivan and a libretto by W. S. Gilbert, the production by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) is richly rewarding.

Among the many delights of all Gilbert & Sullivan works is the overture. Though small, the NYGASP orchestra has a hearty, full sound. Founder, artistic director and general manager Albert Bergeret conducts the musicians with vigor.

Starting with “Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry,” the opening number sung and danced by the pirate ensemble, the production explodes with energy. As the cast guides the audience through the convoluted plot, the bright colors and clever design of Quinto Ott and Gail Wofford’s elaborate costumes (note the epaulets on Major-General Stanley’s bathrobe) fill the eye.

Now to the shenanigans: Frederic’s nursemaid, Ruth, mistakenly apprentices the boy to a band of pirates instead of a group of pilots. Frederic (Christopher Robin Sapp / Andrew Corson) has vowed to devote his life to the extermination of piracy – until a ludicrous leap year snag threatens to keep him apprenticed to the pirates for life.

Although considerably older than Frederic, Ruth wants to marry him. He demurs, realizing he lacks experience with other women. Subsequently, Frederic sees and is smitten with Mabel, one of the many wards of Major-General Stanley (James Mills).

A particular special moment in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas involves a patter song in which a character discloses his background. In “Pirates,” Mills does a splendid job with the much-parodied “I Am the Very Model of a Model Major-General.”

A group of bumbling policemen captained by Ott – as good at comedy as he is at costumes – becomes involved. The police antics with the young ladies and pirates are fun and do full justice to the number, “A Policeman’s Life is Not a Happy One.” Sarah Caldwell Smith as Mabel has a lovely soprano enhanced with a great sense of timing. Cáitlín Burke as Ruth conveys a sense of fun and good stage presence also complemented by a fine voice.

The entire company dances with verve on the small Kaye Playhouse stage. Choreographer Bill Fabris does a creative job with simple movements, especially for the hapless policemen as one inept officer struggles – and mostly fails – to match the steps of his colleagues.

The stage business is vigorous. There are many bright moments: the badminton game played by two young ladies; a policeman lying on a bench as though he is an effigy, and the Major-General’s expressive use of his handkerchief. Holding Queen Victoria’s portrait aloft so the pirates can express their loyalty to the crown, Frederic mimes a hilarious parody of the modern British Royal’s wrist-wave.

The very capable NYGASP, which bills itself as the country’s “preeminent professional Gilbert & Sullivan repertory ensemble,” gracefully covers minor mishaps. For instance, when the lights at the start of Act ll are delayed. A fallen pistol? Uncaught flag? No problem.

James Mills (front and center) as the very model of a modern major-general and “The Pirates of Penzance” ensemble. Photo by William Reynolds.

My only quibble is a lack of crispness in dialogue, both spoken and sung. This may be owing to acoustics at the Kaye Playhouse. Unfortunate because every syllable of Gilbert’s words is worth savoring.

“The Pirates of Penzance” is one of the strongest works in the Gilbert & Sullivan canon. It includes a melodious score as well as ample humor, parody and overall charm right down to the pardon of the pirates who are all “noblemen gone wrong.”

Maidens, policemen, pirates, nursemaid, Major-General and the rest of the cast deliver a very pleasurable experience.

Visit to learn more about “The Pirates of Penzance.”

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