[Sidebar] July 19 - 26, 2001
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A fine frolic

OSLO's The Pirates of Penzance

by Bill Rodriguez

It's good to see that Ocean State Lyric Opera still appreciates its roots. For eight years, the "L" in OSLO stood for "Light," as the group frolicked through summers of Gilbert & Sullivan productions, until they changed their name in 1998 and started doing straight operas. But, as their delightful current staging of The Pirates of Penzance demonstrates, the carefree part of their heart is still with operettas.

Pirates is a popular favorite of the company's fans -- you can even buy a video of them performing it -- as it was of G&S devotees as soon as it hit the stage in 1879. Although the story spoofs everything sacred to Britannia from the whimsical perspective of self-deprecating Brits, the authors premiered its full-blown production here in the colonies. The duo's first hit, H.M.S. Pinafore, had been doing good box office here for more than a year.

The operetta's silliness is so universally recognizable -- at least wherever maidens blush and patriarchs puff themselves up -- that with minor adjustments it would have been a knee-slapper in a Ming dynasty court. The plot is rudimentary, since what happens is incidental to the characters' entertaining inner turmoil.

Through a misunderstanding by his nurse, Frederic was apprenticed as a boy not to a ship's pilot but to pirates. He is now 21 and although he is tormented by the prospect, as a loyal British subject he feels honor-bound to dedicate the rest of his life to exterminating such miscreants as these beloved criminals who raised him. As he explains to the Pirate King, they are too soft-hearted to be pirates anyway, never picking on those weaker than themselves, always defeated by those stronger, and letting their victims go free if they claim to be orphans like themselves.

Since age 8, Frederic hasn't seen any woman besides his nurse Ruth, now 47, so at first he takes her word that she is as beautiful as they come. Just as he is about to settle for her as his wife, he sees a bevy of sisters on the beach disrobing to their petticoats and gloves and is smitten by the one not put off by his blunt lustiness, Mabel. Act II is mostly taken up with the anxiety of the girls' father, General Stanley, over his falsely claiming to be an orphan so that the pirates wouldn't kill him, and by a bunch of Keystone Kops-precursor constables trembling at the prospect of battling them.

With all those comic conflicts and mannered social pretensions, lyricist William S. Gilbert had a wealth of material to pen into witty songs. In the OSLO production, the best-known of all Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs, "Model of a Modern Major-General," is delivered not only deliciously by Kevin Valentine but also considerately -- going for enunciation rather than machine-gun pace. As funny in its own way is the general's later guilt over lying to the pirates; he may have been an orphan before his recent purchase of an estate, but while he doesn't know whose ancestors the portraits around him were, he says he knows whose they are now.

Wordplay in this operetta is especially enjoyable -- one long interchange milks a misunderstanding over the words "orphan" and "often" with "Who's on first?" gusto. Musically as well as lyrically, Pirates sets itself apart. The most demandingly operatic of the G&S operettas, American musicians at its premiere demanded more pay, until Sullivan mentioned that their regular orchestra could be on the next ship. Music Director Paul Phillips has used an early two-piano score and also has added some amusing bonus lyrics to the Major General's song, observing such matters as that, "Senator Jack Reed is looking very sunny/ Now that he's on the committee that appropriates the money."

Douglas Jabara is a nicely incongruous Pirate King, looking too amiable to be a cut-throat. Pamela Dellal is outright uproarious as nurse Ruth, even before she is a recurring sight gag as part of the pirate crew, slashing about feverishly with her cutlass. As for the central couple, Brian Cheney and Molly Jo Bessey have good chemistry and fine voices, from Frederic's unintentionally insulting "Is There Not One Maiden Breast?" to Mabel's familiar "Poor Wandering One." Under Kathryne Jennings' direction, they keep us aware of the tension between propriety and passion.

Although The Pirates of Penzance provides plenty of opportunities for elaborate sets, from poop deck rigging to baronial splendor, the simple backdrop of canvas sails and foreground with steamer trunks helps remind us that the real action here is in our imaginations as well as Gilbert's and Sullivan's.

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