The Pirates of Penzance, City Opera, New York

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The genial, fragile charm of Gilbert and Sullivan works best when the performers let the audience do the laughing. The plots may be silly in their satirical way. Communal tongues may be wedged high in cheek. Still, the comic operas should be played straight on the surface. Otherwise, focuses are distorted. The result: a parody of a parody.

That describes this new Pirates of Penzance. Gerald Steichen, the conductor, concentrates on frenzied tempos, expressive exaggerations and amusing interpolations (Mabel wanders into Lucia’s mad-scene, and the pirates audibly sail the Flying Dutchman’s ghost ship). Lillian Groag, the frantic director, concentrates on slapstick deconstruction while creating sight gags. Everyone dances, prances, kicks heels (Lynne Hockney serves as choreographic accomplice). The gimmick catalogue embraces appearances by Queen Victoria, who pours tea for the girls at the beach, and Alice’s white rabbit, who observes the passing parade from a fake proscenium-box (John Conklin designed the skeletal sets). Oscar Wilde’s likeness illustrates the reference to “an ill-natured fairy”. The policemen – borrowed from Wilford Leach, anno 1980 – impersonate Keystone Kops.

The uneven cast, horribly miked, works hard. Mark Jacoby, the pattering Major General, projects as much crisp wit as the context allows. Matt Morgan sings and smirks sweetly as a mock-innocent Frederic. Marc Kudisch swashbuckles con brio, though the Pirate King makes cruel demands on his musical-comedy baritone. As Ruth, the resident plump-and-pleasing person, Myrna Paris looks stronger than she sounds. Kevin Burdette emerges fleet and flirtatious as a Police Chief bereft of the proper bumbling persona. Sarah Jane McMahon sounds shrill in Mabel’s coloratura flights but executes terrific cartwheels in moments of torment. Poor Gilbert. Poor Sullivan. Poor Pirates.
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