OGDEN — Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance is one of the oldest musicals, or operetta if you will, having premiered at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City in December of 1879. I must confess, it has never been a favorite of mine, simply because, as a woman in the theatre, I have watched the men get many of the fantastic roles in more traditional theatre, while women were stuck, well, climbing over rocky scripts and characterizations. So when I learned that the Ziegfeld Theater had decided to gender swap their production of Penzance, I jumped at the chance to review their latest production of a show that has been around for 143 years.
Whether it was the idea of the producers or the director Rebecca Knowles to gender swap the roles, this is the only way that Penzance should be performed from now on. From the beginning number, “Pour, Oh Pour the Pirate Sherry,” when the female pirates literally swung on stage with some amazing aerials, I was mesmerized by the technical skills of the female pirate crew. Choreographer Dylan Panter and aerials choreographer Heather Greer have created opportunities to show off the actresses’ talents. When Morgan Parry, who plays the pirate king took to the sky in the silks and aerial circle I was absolutely amazed. Looking and sounding like a young Patti LaPone in all the best ways, Parry owns this role and shows some phenomenal physical prowess.
Because the roles originally created for men are more well written and developed than those originally created for female performers, it was a joy to see people like Parry and Mandie Wood Harris as Major General Stanley and Madison Portillo as Fredric get to play these quintessential roles. At the same time, the problematic roles of Mabel (played by JT Kaufmann) and even the best written — though still flawed — female role, Ruth (played by Eb Madson), were made so much better when played by males because the parody was much more evident and appropriate. When Kaufmann was singing his devotion to Frederic after Frederic had sung the comedic yet completely inappropriate “Oh Is There Not One?”, it was easy to just be lost in the humor, rather than remembering that even today men do behave like that to women. Additionally, Madson was exquisite with his humorous telling of the mistake of “pilot” to “pirate” that gets Frederic indentured in the first place. (The explanation is played better as pure parody, instead of as just a stupid woman making a stupid mistake.) Knowles and this cast succeeded for the first time in helping me see the humor in this show, instead of seeing only the problematic, dated writing, and I truly commend her and the cast for it.
Harris as Major General Stanley had the important job of singing the most recognizable song of the show, and she did so with absolute precision and almost a Mary Poppins-type flair that I liked. I also really enjoyed her costume, as well as all the dandies’ costumes. And who doesn’t enjoy a bunch of pirates in corsets? Costume design was also done by Morgan Parry, and she has definitely pulled out all the stops to create a steampunk-influenced vision that matched the set designed by Henry Ballesteros.
However, the production was not perfect. There was one moment when one of the pirates got caught in the silks, but I was just more worried for her safety, but that was a minor hiccup and she recovered well. There were a few missteps here and there. Thankfully, though, the Zig seems to have a new sound system; some of the sound issues I have witnessed in shows passed were not evident in Pirates. In fact, there is one scene in particular that the whole chorus sounds absolutely enchanting. Music director Jonathan MacDonald has really done the score justice with this troupe, and they have built the harmonies well and it is a very pleasant thing to listen to.
The Pirates of Penzance will always be a script that presents challenges for modern sensibilities. I am not sure how something that was written 143 years ago could not be. But it does make me wonder if theatre companies should engage in more with gender blind casting, full gender bends, and other ways to retell classic stories so that we can have a better experience with the classics of the past. I know that the Zig’s production will stick with me as the way I want to remember The Pirates of Penzance in the future.