Photos by Erin Baiano
by Deirdre Donovan
Piracy lived again, as MasterVoices (formerly the Collegiate
Chorale) launched their new season with a semi-staged presentation of Arthur
Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert’s Pirates of Penzance (or The Slave of
Duty) at New York City Center. Gilbert and Sullivan’s popular
operetta lighted down for two evenings in mid-October, they wowed the audience
with this charming work.
Directed by Ted Sperling with The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and
featuring Metropolitan Opera and Broadway stars, including Deborah Voigt, Phillip
Boykin, Douglas Hodge, Hunter Parrish, Julia Udine, David Garrison, Betsy
Wolfe, Montego Glover, and Zachary James, it was an evening that Gilbert and
Sullivan themselves would have enjoyed.
The Pirates of Penzance (1880) has its own special niche in the
Gilbert and Sullivan canon. It followed on the heels of their international
mega-hit H.M.S Pinafore and cemented the duo’s reputation as a major
force in the music world.
The plot is deliciously silly. It centers on Frederic, who as a
lad of 8, was apprenticed to pirates (his nurse was slightly hard-of-hearing
and confused the words “pilot” and “pirate”). When the nurse realized her
blunder, she decided it was better to stay with the pirates than confront
parental blame. As the lights go up, Frederic is a young adult, turning 21, and
completing his apprenticeship. There’s a glitch, however. It is discovered he
was born in Leap Year on February 29th,, 1856 and won’t actually be
21 for many years. As a man with a high sense of duty, Frederic remains with
his nurse and pirates to serve out his apprenticeship. Romance, of course,
enters when Major General Stanley arrives on the Cornish coast with his many
daughters. Frederic falls head over heels with Mabel, who loves him with a
true love. The pirate gang seizes the other daughters for brides, which
naturally outrages the Major General. The police arrive on the scene, which
creates more topsy-turvy situations. But everyone does eventually live happily
ever after, as is always the case in Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
Hunter Parrish, Philip Boykin and Deborh Voight
Enough of the plot. The audience came for the live stage
performance. And the impressive line-up of stars was what really kept things
humming in this 2 hour-plus show. The stars weren’t resting on their laurels
either. The singing and acting were terrific. Deborah Voigt was superb as the
devoted nurse Ruth and Phillip Boykin, as the Pirate King, had plenty of
twinkle. Douglas Hodge cut a fine figure as the Major General Stanley, Julia
Udine as Mabel was well-cast, and Hunter Parrish as Frederic was spot-on.
Other plaudits go to David Garrison as The Sergeant of Police, Zachary James as
Samuel, Betsy Wolfe as Edith, and Montego Glover as Kate.
While this was not a fully-staged production of the operetta, the
production values were all in place. David Korins’ scenic design, in
collaboration with Frances Aronson’s lighting, conjured up the wild and wooly
Cornish coast. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tracey Christensen’s costumes
that outfitted all the characters from the pirates, to the Major General and
his daughters, to nurse Ruth, the police crew and more. Christensen didn’t
over or underdo anything here.
Favorite moments during the show? I leaned in for Voight’s delivery
of the charming number “When Frederic Was a Little Lad,” which detailed
Frederic’s strange childhood from his nurse’s vantage. Udine’s singing of
“Poor Wandering One” was smooth as satin, and Hodge’s “I Am The Very Model of
a Major Modern General” was simply tops. Yes, these three songs have been
pattered, crooned, or parodied countless times before by distinguished
artists. But the trio at City Center gave them a fresh operatic polish and
While I have seen many Pirates of Penzances over the years,
what made this scaled-down version a standout was not only the star-studded
cast, but the astonishing craft of conductor-director Sperling with the
Orchestra of St. Luke’s. If you haven’t seen The Collegiate Chorale—I mean
MasterVoices--you should consider seeing one of their upcoming shows this
season. They recently did The Mikado at Carnegie Hall to fine effect.
But whether it’s a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or a contemporary piece like Not
the Messiah, Sperling and MasterVoices always measure up and give a sublime
Pirates of Penzance, performed on October 15th and 16th.
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan
For more information on upcoming productions, visit www.
NYCityCityCenter.org or www.mastervoices.org
Running time: 2 hours; 30 minutes with one intermission.