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PIRATES AT THE LYRIC: Gilbert & Sullivan standard keeps ‘em laughing

Is there anything worse than an evening of bad Gilbert & Sullivan? If there is, let me know. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production of The Pirates of Penzance came as a shock to my system, perhaps because I’ve become too accustomed to mediocre-to-awful productions of the operettas by this celebrated team of Victorian satirists. This version, to my surprise and relief, was immensely entertaining and very, very funny.  

The Lyric showed it knows just how to make the 1879 Pirates work: hire real opera singers for the leads (this is not a Broadway musical), put a top orchestra and gifted conductor in the pit, find an artistically pleasing set and hire a stage director who knows how to do comedy in a sophisticated, fully professional manner. The result, which I attended on April 25, is one of the better G&S productions I’ve seen, and one that reminded me why these works are still performed.

Director Dorothy Danner is not just blessed with unflagging imagination, she is also a former Broadway dancer and choreographer. As such, this Pirates contains two solid hours of intricate, solidly conceived choreography. Soloists and choristers alike must have worked as hard on the physical comedy as they did learning their roles. Barely a second goes by when there isn’t something interesting to watch: choristers swaying in unison to the beat, Rockette-like kicks of the policemen (always gently underplayed), symmetrical formations that fan out, strike a pose then dissolve in a dozen directions like a dizzy night at the Ziegfeld Follies. But Danner knows how not to overdo the movement: She stops just short of slapstick, in all but a couple of scenes (like that of the policemen in their “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment” number).

The leads seemed made for their roles. Nili Riemer’s silver-bell coloratura was a delight on the ear, and it allowed her to add insider “quotes” from other famous coloratura arias in Mabel’s big “Poor wand’ring one” aria, which was deftly played and limpidly sung. (Mozart’s Queen of the Night was heard, perhaps to foreshadow Queen Victoria’s walk-on appearance at the end?)

Chad A. Johnson as Frederic, the apprentice pirate, possesses a solid tenor that was consistent in all its ranges. His elegant stage movements were whimsical and assured without striking that “look-at-me-I’m-the-tenor” stance. Markus Beam as the Pirate King was the “hot dog” of the show, not just looking but acting like Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, but adding to it a golden baritone. He sparkled onstage, drawing your eyes to him with something like genuine charisma.

The audience favorite among the cast, judging from the applause at the end of the show, was Our Town’s own Robert Gibby Brand as Major-General Stanley. This broad satirical role is perfectly suited to Brand’s cat-like comic presence, and he sang it decently too. He delivered the famous patter aria “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” with seat-of-the-pants virtuosity. Jennifer Roderer injected playful silliness into the role of Ruth, the “pirate maid.” On Opening Night the walk-on role of Queen Victoria, which each night features a different local celebrity, was played by local KMBC-TV reporter Bev Chapman, looking rather slender for the part.)

The Lyric Chorus sounded exceptionally strong and accurate, and guest conductor Andy Anderson conducted the Kansas City Symphony players with fluidity, control, musicality and a palpable sympathy with the singers. In only a couple of large-scale ensemble numbers did chorus and orchestra stray apart, but such occasions were remarkably few considering how much the singers were being asked to dance, somersault, swordfight, and toss each other about the stage.

For the second time this Lyric season the set and lighting design was a rental created by Peter Dean Beck, whose mirrored windows added much to the Lyric’s La Traviata in March. This time Beck has taken an illustrative, story-book approach, with a multi-hued outdoor scene for Act 1 and a picturesque chapel and graveyard for Act 2. The women’s costumes were frilly, pastel-laden cliché-Victorian, but the over-the-top pirate outfits I found tasteful and fun.

The Pirates of Penzance runs through May 3 at the Lyric Theater. It is performed in English with English supertitles. For tickets and information call 816-471-7344 or go tokcopera.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, write email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

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Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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