DRAPER — The Utah/ Idaho Performing Arts Company presented a two-night showing of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance at the Draper Theatre Friday and Saturday night. Fortunately, the very short run of the show is over, and I am not in a position to discourage or recommend attendance. But if the run of the production were continuing, I would not have recommended attendance, despite a sincere desire to do so. Conducted by Sean Rogers and Directed by Joey Calkins, the spirit, enthusiasm, and fun of the production were present, but the artistry was not.
First produced in 1879, the The Pirates of Penzance operetta is silly in its premise: a young man named Frederic (Johnny Hebda) is mistakenly indentured to a pirate until his 21st birthday by his nursemaid, Ruth (Valaura Arnold). On the eve of his 21st birthday, Ruth desires that Frederic marry her, despite her old age of 47. That same day, however, Frederic spies a band of sisters and quickly falls in love with one named Mabel (Mimi West), who returns his affection. So, too, the other pirates arrive ready to marry the other sisters, who do not return their affection. Just in time, the girls’ father, a Major-General (Gordon Jones) arrives and saves them from their fate by falsely claiming he is an orphan and appealing to the sympathy of the pirates who free all.
Some time passes, and Frederic, no longer indentured to the pirates, seeks to capture them and bring them in with some help from the police. Before he is able to do so, Ruth and the Pirate King (Brandtley Henderson) confront Frederic with the fact that he was born on Leap Day, and has only technically had 5 birthdays. Appealing to his sense of duty, they coax Frederic back into his indenture. Aligned once again with the pirates, Frederic reveals that the Major-General lied about his orphan status. The Pirates are about to inflict revenge when they are overtaken by the police who subdue them by appealing to their devotion to the Queen. Ruth then reveals that the pirates are actually noblemen who have gone astray at which point the Major-General gives them his daughters in marriage, and they all live happily ever after.
A delightfully silly production, The Pirates of Penzance could also be considered a very difficult production with songs that could test seasoned professionals. As such, it is surprising that the Utah/Idaho Performing Arts Company would invest so much time into a show for such a limited run. On one hand, they ought to be applauded for their commitment to material that they obviously love. On the other, admiration for the show should also warrant a commitment that results in a polished production, and this was not one.
The vocals in the show were uneven (as might be expected in a community theatre production). Brandtley Henderson as the Pirate King was particularly strong, and Mimi West as Mabel was also a stand-out both in terms of vocals and comedy. Johnny Hebda did a decent job as Frederic, as did Valaura Arnold as Ruth (though her voice was rarely strong enough to be heard over the orchestra). While the vocals of Gordon Jones as the Major-General were not particularly strong, his delightful character awareness made up for the lack (The Major-General’s song was, indeed, funny). The company numbers were the strongest of the production, made so by the obvious zeal of the ensemble. Kudos to both the amusing band of pirates and the delightful sisters.
Given the limited resources of small community theatre productions, I would likely have recommended this show based on the actors’ performances alone, but it was in the direction that I found most fault. Calkins created a very confused production with no clear directorial focus. The show began conventionally enough and appeared to be set in the nineteenth century, but then the band of sisters appeared in costumes that seemed to harken back to the 1920s. While this could easily be accepted, the appearance of the police dressed as the agents in Men In Black, complete with black suits, dark sunglasses, and what looked like toy light sabers could not. (The phrase “men in black” in reference to the police officers did appear in one of the songs. I do not know if the phrase is part of the original script.) Undoubtedly Calkins thought this inane addition was in the spirit of Penzance silliness. In fact, however, it did nothing for the production, especially in light of the tongue-in-cheek Britishisms so prevalent in the play. In addition, many of the jokes in the play were glossed over, and there was no clear awareness of the meta-theatrical humor inherent in Gilbert and Sullivan.
In addition to his directorial missteps, Calkins is also guilty of other poor choices. First, he appeared as the Sergeant of Police in the play, and I question all directors who take the stage of their own show. Whether this was a last minute substitution is unknown. Calkins did forget a number of verses in two songs, so perhaps this is the case. Finally, during the curtain call, he emerged as the final performer to be applauded, as if he was the star of the show, an act that was in such poor taste that I can think of few others in my theatre experience to match it.
Directorial comments aside, other aspects of the production were satisfactory. The orchestra, conducted by Sean Rogers, did a fine job. The choreography by Torri Adams and Joey Calkins was also sufficient. There was more “movement” than there was “dancing” (there was a lot of marching) but this would be expected for the small space. The scene design, also by Calkins, was satisfactory, with one backdrop suitable for all of the scenes that were made more intelligible by projected subtitles just above the stage.
The Pirates of Penzance is a worthy play, and I applaud any company that brings it to the community. Unfortunately, this was a production that did not do Gilbert and Sullivan justice, despite the valiant efforts of the eager performers.