KPBS AIRDATE: August 5, 1992
There’s plenty of pap in summer musical theatre. But the Papp that’s come to Vista is a welcome addition. It’s the legacy of Joseph Papp and his acclaimed, innovative New York Shakespeare Festival. The inventive impresario died last year. But his 1981 update of “The Pirates of Penzance” lives on at the Moonlight Amphitheatre.
(MUSIC UP & UNDER: “Modern Major General)
“Pirates” is one of the traditional Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera favorites, but this hammy, campy, spiced-up version was a hoot in New York , with leads played by Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. He was terrific; her singing was splendid, but she couldn’t act her way out of a see-through plastic bag.
Now, along come creative co-directors Gary Krinke and Ray Limon. They’ve both added and detracted from the New York production. What they’ve added is their spectacular setting. As they’ve done in the past, with exciting direction of “Into the Woods” and “Anything Goes,” they make marvelous use of the Moonlight’s outdoor space. Here, for example, they have the eight daughters of the Major General drift saucily down the hillside, parasols in hand, singing, or more accurately, lip-syncing “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain.” And the Pirate King makes a dazzling entrance — and curtain call — by flying across the entire outdoor space, sliding down a cable stretched from the rear of the amphitheatre to the stage.
What’s lost, though, is a consistency of humor. Sometimes the production takes itself too seriously, and then, a split-second later, there’s a passel of posing and asides, silliness that suddenly doesn’t seem to fit.
The plot is all about duty, honor and love of Queen, and it tends toward the treacly in its original incarnation. It fairly begs for campy humor.
And while this production doesn’t quite deliver in that department, the singing is top-notch, with the romantic leads — Dirk Rogers and Katie Jensen — providing the strongest additions. But most of the support from character actors is weak. Randall Hickman is a spirited Pirate King, but the roles of Ruth, the Sergeant and the modern Major General fall pretty flat. These parts have been played by powerful, funny actor/singers. Here, we have a minimal amount of prowess — and humor. Doug Davis is very agile Sergeant, but not a very vocally strong one, and his backup of bumbling Bobbies is positively puny, especially in the “Ta-ran Ta-ra” number, “When the Foeman Bares His Steel,” (MUSIC UP & UNDER: “WHEN THE FOEMAN…”) which should, like the Major General’s patter song, be show-stoppers — and certainly aren’t.
Nonetheless, the staging and choreography are sprightly — somewhat manic at times, but that works to good effect, masking the fact that the story-line seems both dated and difficult to follow.
If you’re not a perfectionist, though, it’s a lively, colorful production, a good first exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan, and a fun evening in a beautiful setting under the stars.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.