CENTERVILLE — The Pirates of Penzance, the comedic opera written by the team of Gilbert and Sullivan, first premiered in 1879. While I enjoy a lot of modern work, sometimes it is a great experience to see a production whose script has passed through over a century of interpretation. Will the production mounted at CenterPoint Legacy Theatre, directed by Liz Christensen, be as captivating for the audience as the first audience in 1879? Not only did I find myself impressed with the elements of the production, but I also found myself enjoying a show that I have merely found passable in the past.
The first aspect of the show that I found engaging was the exceptional set design by Brian Christensen, which incorporated two side areas that were used very effectively in humorous additions to the story. The set was enhanced greatly with the daring choice by mother and daughter costume design team Nita Smith and Jeanna Forthman to do the production in a steampunk style. Though at first I was skeptical, but as the production progressed, I felt so transported into the world that the idea of doing The Pirates of Penzance any other way now seems pointless. Christensen used this in her direction to give the show an even more whimsical feel that helped highlight the humor in the lyrics and story.
Christensen also served as the choreographer of the show, and the dancing worked well for the most part. I enjoyed seeing the modern movements included within the production, and especially felt that it was effective in the song “Climbing over Rocky Mountains,” a song I have despised until seeing this version. However, I did feel that the choreography did not translate well for the police songs “With Cat Like Tread” and “When a Felon’s not Engaged.” I felt the crisp choreography normally utilized in those songs would have worked better than Christensen’s choreography.
The policemen in the cast struggled hitting the low notes of the song, and that was missed. The policemen did make up for these minor downfalls with some strong humorous moments, most especially the very clever pre-opening to the show by the Police Sergeant (playing Matthew Thomas Castleton).
A successful production of The Pirates of Penzance requires a strong male cast, and this production was no exception. Monte Garcia played an entrancing Pirate King, and his costume was elegant and perfect for his well-known song, “I am the Pirate King.” I also enjoyed his chemistry with Ruth (played by Laura Alsop Checketts) in the song “A Paradox.” Young Frederic was played dashingly by the wonderful Derek Marsden, and his “Stop Ladies Pray” was certainly a show stopper. All of the pirates did a fantastic job of playing the tough yet strangely empathetic crew. Rounding out the males of course is the famous Major General (played by David Marsden) and he performed his signature song complete justice.
I have often felt the female roles in The Pirates of Penzance offer few chances for actresses to display their talents, but the women of this cast proved me wrong. At the top of the list is Checketts as Ruth, the sneaky alto who is trying to win the heart of young Frederic, yet knows her competition will be her downfall. Her deep alto voice was perfect for “A Paradox” and “When Frederic was a Little Lad.” I appreciated her diction, as it is entirely important to the plot of the latter song. Additionally, Kahli Dalbow is one of the few actresses I have seen who had the ability to master the role vocally, especially with the range expected on songs like “Poor Wandering One.” Her sisters, led by the fantastic Kat Tietjen as Edith, also played these rather flighty roles with more depth and humor than I have ever seen.
Finally, The Pirates of Penzance is a vocally challenging show, and perhaps some of my former distaste has come from seeing casts not up to the task of meeting the musical expectations. Thankfully, under the expert music direction of Anthony Buck, the vocals, harmonies, and musicality expected were artfully executed. My only wish continues to be that CenterPoint find a way to employ live musicians within their productions.