In Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance,” the titular band of scallywags have all of the comedic bumbling but none of the actual cutthroat savvy of today’s beloved pirate archetype, Captain Jack Sparrow. In one scene, they attempt to woo the daughters of the Major General Stanley (Austin Kase ’11) with promises of “the felicity of unbounded domesticity” that comes part and parcel of marriage to a “doctor of divinity.” Their plan, however, is easily overthrown by the Major General’s lie about being an orphan. It appeals to the soft-hearted nature of the pirates, all orphans themselves.
Directed by Nicholas Bleisch ’13 and performed by the Yale Gilbert & Sullivan Society, “The Pirates of Penzance” is at once an exploration of the trials and pitfalls of following (or not) one’s duty, and a display of late 19th century courting that is as hilariously awkward (if considerably chaste) as Wednesday night Toad’s. It tells the tale of Frederic (Peter Minnig ’13), a young man who was mistakenly apprenticed to the pirates of Penzance when he was a boy and who gained his freedom upon reaching his 21st birthday. He then falls in love with Mabel (Marisa Karchin ’14), one of the Major General’s daughters, only to find out that because he was born on Feb. 29, he technically has another 63 years to spend in servitude to the Pirate King (Jake Nelson GRD ’14) and his crew.
Even with such a humorous and successful premise, however, leading man Minnig’s performance is underwhelming for the show that remains one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular operas to this day. Musically, he swashbuckles and belts along with the best of them, but his acting performance leaves one wondering how someone who spent so much time around such a flamboyant crew of pirates could have so little personality. This occasionally works, like when he’s putting the moves on the Major General’s daughters, because that type of nervous disconnect is exactly what one would expect from someone who’s only ever seen a woman in the form of his childhood nanny, Ruth (Nicole Levy ’13). It’s conceivable, especially if you are a newbie to the Gilbert and Sullivan scene, that this was actually a faithful portrayal of what is supposed to be a reserved, honor-driven and duty-bound character. Perhaps a lifetime of being ordered around by the boisterous pirates gave poor Frederic little opportunity to develop a personality of his own between sessions of poop deck-swabbing. Whether it was this or simply a lack of connection with the character is unclear.
Exacerbating this one issue, but lifting the entire show to a knee-slapping good time, are the stellar performances by virtually every other performer. Kase in particular stole the show as the puttering, shaky old Major General. He deserves commendation just for managing to cram so many syllables into so few bars of music in “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” and nothing short of a standing ovation for doing so in a dead-on personification of the crotchety, doting, quick-witted Major General. Not to be outdone are the actual pirates of Penzance, most notably Pirate King and the proverbial desperate pirate wench, Ruth, whose performances outshine even their glittery feathered hats and crowns.
The show climaxes with the pirate crew, the bumbling band of reticent policemen and the Major General in the latter’s backyard engaging in a silly bout of fighting and debate reminiscent of many Monty Python sketches, all thanks to Frederic, whose sense of duty apparently doesn’t include sticking to one side. Not to spoil the ending with too many details, but the conclusion is just as random, tidy and flippant as one could expect after two hours of Penzance antics.
Despite the rest of the cast overwhelming Frederic in both plot and performance, “The Pirates of Penzance” delivers a pleasant dose of 19th century seafaring humor, from its jaunty opening to all-too-fitting conclusion.
“The Pirates of Penzance” opened Thursday night and has performances Friday at 9:30 p.m. and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. at the Off Broadway Theater.