Pirates Enchanting, Though Offensive

The Pirates of Penzance Directed by Gina Fried-Miller At the Agassiz Theater Through December 14

It is not easy to stage The Pirates of Penzance. The ridiculous, possibly offensive story is neither timeless nor universal. Several profound topics are explored: love based on youthful beauty, the "marrying" of maidens against their will, and action from a sense of duty though in contradiction to one's values. Although many productions derive humor from mocking these themes, the musical score saves this melodramatic opera from being lost.

Harvard's production, under the direction of Gina Fried-Miller, wisely sustains the light and comic aspects of the story and places it in a traditional context--1840's Great Britain. Conductor Sarah Hicks sets the mood with Gilbert and Sullivan's time-honored "God Save The Queen."

Considering this play's basic flaw (its story), a production of The Pirates of Penzance cannot get much better than this one. Beautiful singing; skilled acting; perfectly-executed, though lacking in dynamics, orchestral accompaniment and appropriate sets and costumes combine to create an enchanting theatrical experience.

The play opens with Frederic's (remarkable tenor Joel Derfner) 21st birthday, marking the official end of his legal apprenticeship to a band of pirates. His nursemaid, Ruth, (a clear and comic Diana Graham) had mistaken his father's request of "pilot" for "pirate" training and, now that Frederic is free, he seeks to destroy piracy.

Frederic agrees to marry Ruth when she convinces him that despite her old age (47), she is still as pretty as other girls. He rejects her when he sees the more attractive young daughters of Major General Stanley (George Torbay, imported from the New England Conservatory of Music). Definer's sweet tenor voice moves the maidens hearts until he pleads, "Is there not one maiden here whose homely face and bad complexion/Have caused all hope to disappear of ever winning man's affection?"


Only Mabel (soprano Jenny Giering) responds favorably and, in a breath-taking display of polished vocal range, she flirts with Frederic by breaking into song every time he tries to kiss her. Christine van Kipnis' choreography displays the coquettish maidens' spying on Mabel and Frederic's romantic conversation with droll grace.

The pirates return to "take" the girls as wives--a euphemism for raping them--but agree to let them go when the Major General appeals to their sympathy as fellow orphans--the pirates' well-known weak spot. Torbay, decked in britches, cape and sideburns, is the quintessential G&S nobleman, lovable and powerless. His skillful voice and comic ability shine in a song describing the Major General's impractical knowledge recounted in rhyme.

Frederic organizes the police force to fight against the pirates but is confronted by Ruth and the Pirate King (Anton Quist) before the attack. They tell him he was born on February 29 and has only truly celebrated five birthdays. Since his apprenticeship was to conclude after 21 birthdays, he feels obligated to serve the pirates until 1940.

The inevitable grand finale--everyone getting married--follows a wave of exciting, well-choreographed musical numbers. Pirates run into the audience and swing from the balcony, and the police march in high-stepping, nervous fashion as Mabel sings "Go to glory, go to death!"

Torbay, Giering and Derfner excel both musically and dramatically. The maidens, most notably soloists Margot Fleischman and Rachel Storch, sang strongly and were appropriately adorable. The pirates, though not as musically solid, showed amusing and convincingly spirited comraderie.

Unfortunately, Fried-Miller fails to develop the humorous potential in the police officers. The Serjeant--weakly played by David Miller--was only accompanied by three officers, of which only one (Michael Rosenbaum) maintained character and sang clearly. The lyrics were too often obscured by the orchestra.

One can easily overlook Gilbert's misogynist and shallow plot and the few production flaws and completely enjoy the show. The talented cast and the combination of music and comedy make this Pirates of Penzance worthwhile and wonderful.

Recommended Articles