Theater Review: THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE (Pacific Opera Project at Forest Lawn, Glendale)

Post image for Theater Review: THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE (Pacific Opera Project at Forest Lawn, Glendale)

by Tony Frankel on May 25, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


The plot of The Pirates of Penzance, a satire so cutting in Victorian days, will likely come off as inane to today’s spectators. Still, Arthur Sullivan’s music is superb and the lyrics delicious, though it takes a sharp ear to follow W.S. Gilbert’s rapid-fire libretto. The score almost feels like it was written recently as a period piece, but the show actually premiered in 1879. The opera takes place in a never-never land in and around Penzance, a town at the southwestern tip of England. The hero is the boyish Frederic. As a child he was supposed to be apprenticed as a seafaring pilot but his nursemaid Ruth got confused and apprenticed him instead as a pirate. Yeah. it’s that kind of story. So Pacific Opera Project‘s Josh Shaw, a purveyor of joyful silliness in many of his productions, needed little to no augmentation, although there is some added improv. What he did do outdoors at Forest Lawn Glendale is sail us to the land of delight with campy, comical opera singers who nailed the old-fashioned, well, operetta. Matey conductor Caleb Yanez-Glickman strikingly steered the stormy seas of al fresco miked sound with a superb orchestra, and Salette Corpus’s costumes are a lovely spectacle — from the ragged pirates aboard the impressively staged ship (set by David Handler) to the glorious fine ladies of the day who appear as if plucked from a Monet painting.

But that script. Despite its longevity, it’s just ridiculous. Pirates satirizes the music of several opera composers of the day, as well as Victorian stage melodramas, but for today’s audience, it takes the suspension of disbelief for a long drive, taking turns that make no sense, before just careening off the cliff in the final scenes with a misogynist outcome that doesn’t fit a man who supposedly loves his daughters, even given the time period. In the end, it feels like Gilbert and Sullivan had five minutes to find a way to wrap it all up and thus improvised something ludicrous. With POP, the silliness is congenial, even as the twists no doubt felt more right in their day. After repeated viewings, the absurdity of it all still keeps me from being particularly invested in the characters, even as I was highly invested in the singers, who acted far better than the average big opera companies.

Since Frederic’s nurse Ruth (spitfire Emily Geller) misheard his late father, Frederic (strong crooning tenor Brian Wallin) has spent most of his young life as an apprentice upon a pirate, not pilot ship. He is turning 21 and can finally leave the ship and its mangy staff, whose morals he abhors as an honest man. He has felt duty-bound (and — yay! — we drink every time “duty” is heard) to fulfill his work contract to the final day. Finally meeting women other than Ruth, he discovers that they do not find appeal in his having been a pirate — even as he finds them far prettier than Ruth because, you know, they are. Eager to change his image and find true love with the gentler sex, he undertakes to bring down his former shipmates, showing his noble nature. You almost feel sorry for the Pirate King who lovingly leads his crew — and dashing Jake Stamatis, who has excellent vocal chops, is no one I’d throw out of bed — I mean off the ship. From there, deceptions, devious plotting, and mockery of social order (including some lively bumbling by cowardly Keystone-Kop policemen) lead to the chaos that has made this show famous for over a century.

As Frederic’s love interest, Mabel, Chloe Sundet — terrific in coloratura singing, dramatic range and comedic effect — produces pitch-perfect trills. Perhaps most memorable and certainly the most remarkable performance is E. Scott Levin as Mabel’s father, Major-General Stanley. I wouldn’t say nay to supertitles, but one can make out every word of his rapid-fire patter in the tongue-twisting “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Even as the music crescendos, Levin articulates at the speed of light. (The “E” before Levin stands for Entertaining as hell.) Levin is assisted in eliciting the production’s numerous comic joys by Phil Meyer as a sergeant in the Penzance police force, a group of singularly unaggressive law enforcement men who prefer to sit out any conflict with the criminal element. Choreographer Amy Lawrence brightens the police appearances with clever and humorous dance bits, the mincing Mayer leading the way.

The show is performed in a tight two hours plus time for intermission revelry. That’s plenty of time to present more than two dozen beautifully performed songs and an ample supply of comic foolery. As a bonus, audiences will discover that the number “With Cat-Like Tread” is actually the origin of the boisterous and familiar “Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here.”

photos by Martha Benedict

The Pirates of Penzance
Pacific Opera Project
sung in English with no subtitles
Forest Lawn Glendale | 1712 S Glendale Ave in Glendale
Remaining performances: Fri 5/26, Sat 5/27, & Sun 5/28 at 7:15pm
Sunday June 18, 2023 at 3, you can stream Pirates on POP’S Facebook & Youtube!
for tickets, visit POP

Leave a Comment