Gilbert and Sullivan’s Classic Pirates of Penzance Sets Sail at Fort Salem Theater
It always rather amazes that something written for the stage approximately 140 years ago still has legs in today’s theatrical world. That is the case, though, with most, if not all, of the classic comedic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. The humor, when properly presented, remains timeless, the sarcasm stands the test of time, and, of course, the music still resonates. Pirates of Penzance is as well received today as it was when Gilbert and Sullivan themselves steered the production ship.
Pirates has set sail on the stage of Fort Salem Theater to resounding audience appreciation. The production is overall a fine one. This production has some very high highs and a few more subtle glitches.
The evening began with Director/Choreographer and theater co-owner Kyle West welcoming the audience and explaining that due to a health issue, their music director is unable to lead the orchestra so they needed to pivot and use prerecorded music tracks. Personally, not a fan of the prerecorded tracks as they limit the performer’s ability to add or personalize their music. In this case, it proved to be a plus. It was wonderful to hear the performers with the benefit of full orchestrations behind them. This show, like most operas, lends itself to that full, lush sound. Score one for modern technology!
The cast sounds wonderful. Any operetta is only as good as the weakest voice, and fortunately, there are no weak voices to be heard. Chorus numbers are full, exciting, and lush. If there is any issue, it falls with the fact that some voices are so far superior that the rest of the cast’s perfectly lovely voices fall to the next level.
Outstanding in the cast is Lisa Franklin as Ruth, the Pirate Maid and nanny of the indentured Frederic. Her stunning clear, very obviously operatically trained voice sails over the footlights. Matching her note for note is Marissa Sophie Rackwitz, Frederic’s love interest. Listening to Rackwitz’s voice, one can only wonder where her career may go. Anyone with knowledge of G&S shows is aware that there is always an impossibly difficult patter song sung at such speeds as to stupefy the audience. Peter Bailey, as Major-General Stanley, does just that. Bailey not only perfectly looks the part with his beard and handlebar mustache but does a yeoman’s job performing the classic I Am The Model of a Modern Major-General.
Christoper Bischoff as the Pirate King, and Xander Holden, Samuel, his Lieutenant, have a wonderful sense of comic timing to go along with their fine vocal acumen. Michael Burns is Frederic. He perfectly looks the part of the young innocent about to end his indentured life with the pirates at his 21st birthday. His voice is sweet and offers a delightful tenor though it does lack the power to often play against the stronger voices.
Scene Designer Charles J.J. Krawczyk once again brings the Ft. Salem stage alive with his design. Courtnie Harrington’s lighting and Tom Moeller’s sound bring the production to life. The costumes assembled by Gina Kowalski and Kyle West appear to have been pulled from the available stock of wardrobe, presenting a mismatch of time periods. Sometimes they work, and other times, they appear somewhat haphazard. West’s choreography is just enough. Most G&S shows have little or no choreography, and West uses just enough to make it feel natural without stressing out his performers.
Most Gilbert and Sullivan shows enjoy bringing the audience into the joke. The actors all mug and steal and speak directly to the audience as if to assure them they, too, are in on the jokes and absurdity of what they are doing. There is a fine line to walk to include everyone in the fun and not just look silly on the stage. Here West occasionally falls short. He has thrown in some unnecessary modern-day allusions that are pointless distractions from the story. Pirates are so beautifully written that the show stands on its own time-proven legs. Sometimes less is more, even when more seems to call out for even more.
West tries earnestly to juggle many balls, Director, Choreographer, Costumes, Producer, and Properties, as well as the company’s Board President and the Theater’s Executive and Artistic Director. He perhaps must delegate some of the responsibility and concentrate more on where his passions lie—always difficult with a fledgling enterprise.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to see a Gilbert and Sullivan production or if the thought of an opera is intimating to you, Ft. Salem’s Pirates of Penzance is a wonderful way to jump into the deep end. A well-crafted production, a stage filled with stunning voices, and performers that are very clearly enjoying their time on the stage.
Pirates of Penzance runs through August 20 at the Fort Salem Theater, 11 East Broadway, Salem, NY. For reservations and information: www.fortsalem.com or call 518-854-9200.