SOUTH SALT LAKE — There are works of art with blurred-out backgrounds fading away behind the subject, and there are others where the background becomes the subject through sheer beauty. In The Pirates of Penzance at the Parker Theatre, the ensemble brightens the stage with an energy that enlivens this entire production.
This production of The Pirates of Penzance is directed by David K. Martin with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. This is a musical comedic opera, and the cast is delightful, with both comedic moments and their incredible singing voices. Many of the most stunning moments of this production are when the actors and actresses sing together, as in the Act I Finale number of “Hail, Poetry.” Even in their smaller respective ensembles, these shared choral numbers struck an impressive chord as the ensemble of maidens did in “Climbing over the rocky mountain” when they arrive to the beach where they first meet Frederic. The joy of all performers in the production helped keep the stage alive and as many individual actors appeared on the stage, they made their staging purposeful. This was aided by the greatly entertaining instances of physical comedy incorporated through the stage direction and the choreography (choreographed by Makenna Hague).
Frederic (played by Alan Smith) is a 21-year-old young man happily completing his apprenticeship in piracy and now looking to live a respectable life. As the Pirate King (played by Tyler Oliphant) dryly points out, piracy is honest compared to a respectable life. Frederic goes anyway with his nursemaid Ruth (portrayed by Natalie Killpack-Daniel), where he is alarmed to discover that Ruth is plain compared to the beautiful young maidens he finds on the beach. Killpack-Daniel creates great comedic tension through her facial expressions as she performs a woman coyly defending her beauty against that of young maidens before being heartlessly cast aside. Ruth’s beauty, dismissed by Frederic, shines in the wit of Killpack-Daniel’s performance throughout the comic opera.
The ensemble groups together are a highlight of the production in their comedic and choral talents. In all three major ensemble groups (the pirates, the daughters of the Major General, and the policemen), it was clear that the performers of the groups were clearly together while remaining individually distinct. The costuming designed by Rebecca Richards contributing to distinguishing characters. Each pirate shared costuming details, and yet none of their costumes looked identical, particularly that each had a specific accent color. When the pirates and the daughters paired off, each couple shared a matching color. The consistent costuming helped to make sense of many performers on the stage and create a cohesive world.
The pirates, a four-member crew, felt like a genuine band of pirate brothers. One great moment occurred when Ruth perform her solo “When Frederic was a little lad” while the pirate band gathered around her like little children listening to their favorite story. Later, the band of pirates with their Pirate King hilariously banged around the stage as they danced in the second act, creating unexpected juxtaposition of physicality through the choreography was hilarious and performed with great enthusiasm by this pirate crew.
The maiden daughters of the Major General carried this same enthusiasm as they entered the story. I was able to glean much of the personalities of these daughters as they wielded their parasols. These props are carried throughout the introduction of these woman and then progressively are manipulated to fit their changing circumstances, whether carrying their parasols daintily for a beautiful picnic or wielding them as shields to protect them from the gaze of an intruding man. When Mabel (played by Karllen Johnson) arrives, she used her parasol to flirt with Frederic and attract him. In a clever use of an actor using a prop as an extension of herself, Johnson moves the parasol to create and keep physical tension between her and Smith even as the performers never physically touch each other. When the Pirate King and his pirate men arrive to take the girls, these lovely parasols become swords against the pirates as the daughters attempt to fight back the advances of the pirate men.
In the second act, the Sergeant (played by Connor Evans) and the policemen added to this delightful ensemble. As the policemen march in ridiculous fashion, hide in plain sight, and march into one another, they make a fitting match for the pirates they hope to capture. Evans performed his role with overexaggerated rigidity and then shocking daintiness. He transitioned from an exaggerated march to mock tap dancing during the number “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment.” The band of policemen shared this contrasting characterization and created a loyal backup band for their Sergeant. Their physical comedy and high energy added greatly to the overall humor and quality of the production.
The physical comedy in part shines because it does much to help the understanding of the plot. A perplexing frustration during the show was the difficulty understanding the words and lyrics. I found frequently that I struggled to hear their words, sung and unsung, over the prerecorded music. The libretto of Pirates of Penzance is deeply intricate at times, including fast word patter and several sections where the chorus overlaps in counterpoint with different words and lyrics. As a result, key phrases and lines were missed including the comedic confusion of the “orphan” and “often” dialogue shared between the Major General (portrayed by Owen Richardson Jr.) and the Pirate King near the end of the first act. In this production, it all sounded like “orphan.”
This was a surprising departure, as both Richardson and Oliphant delivered strong performances in singing and speaking throughout the rest of the performance. Richardson was particularly outstanding with his diction, annunciation, and comedic timing in his solo of the Major-General’s famous song introducing himself. Likewise, Oliphant was a terrific presence and did excellent during his role in the “paradox” trio. Unfortunately, the performer that I struggled most to understand was Johnson. Her diction struggled in the upper register, and thus many of her lines were lost in the space. “Poor wand’ring one” in the first act, where Mabel falls in love with Frederic, the lyrics were difficult to hear clearly. Bu Johnson’s physical performance did do much to convey her meaning.
During musical numbers, which are frequently interspersed (sometimes occurring concurrently), Nathan Hadley‘s lighting design would dim and use spotlights to highlight the singers, espeically in the solo and duo numbers. “When Frederic was a little lad” early in act one used this effect to highlight Killpack-Daniel as she sung about how Ruth and Frederic arrived on a pirate ship. However, in the second act, when the setting shifted to nighttime and the stage was darker and dimmer, the spotlight operators’ errors in following the actors became more noticeable. During the duet between Mabel and Frederic in the second act, there were several moments when the spotlight was unable to keep up with the movement of Smith, which was distracting from the performance of the actors.
Overall, the best moments of The Pirates of Penzance are when the production showcases the ensemble’s collective fun, playful energy together. The greatest triumph for the ensemble is their shared choral voices ringing through the theatre, sounding like a great choir. The joy and fun of the performances result in a greatly entertainment evening full of laugh-out-loud moments. This production is worthy for a first-time viewer of The Pirates of Penzance, or those returning to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical comedy.