The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players visited Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia this past weekend to perform Pirates of Penzance, one of the most beloved Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.
If you have never been to Wolf Trap you need to put it on your bucket list. The stage and the grounds are beautiful and enormous (wear walking shoes it is a hike to get from the parking area) and parking is delightfully free. While I was in the amphitheater, which was open air but under cover, others surrounded the monolith on the grassy hill, more casual so as to be able to picnic or recline while listening and seeing this fabulous show at much a reduced cost. It was refreshing to see children coming to see an opera without the fear of having to keep them still and quiet confined to a chair. The enormity of the venue had its drawbacks as this theater is too large for even the loudest divas to be heard everywhere without technology sound amplifications, and there were times that it was difficult to hear ensemble pieces.
The show opens with a wave from the conductor in the orchestra pit. The entire pit rises out of the ground proving to all that this is live music and for the overture we got a glimpse this talented group of musicians before the stage crew hit the magic button and sent them back to their orchestral dungeon.
…well-deserved standing ovation and 10 curtain calls…
The premise of many Gilbert and Sullivan shows are so far-fetched that we delight in the ridiculous. A nurse, Ruth is a spinster of ordinary beauty, misunderstands her employer’s directive to find his son an apprenticeship to a PILOT, she hears incorrectly, sending him to apprentice to a sensitive and dashing group of PIRATES. Ruth is played by Angela Christine Smith, whose rich contralto voice lends gravitas and humor to this frivolity.
Frederic, the good-natured, tender-hearted naïve young man acted gallantly by Daniel Greenwood. I fell in love from the moment his clear smooth tenor voice is heard. We start the show and it is Frederic’s 21st birthday and the day that he is able to free himself from his indenture to the pirates. Not only that, duty of heart demands that he must spend the rest of his life ridding the world of pirates. We meet the pirate king, David Wannen who is so good looking and has a glorious booming bass voice that I would happily sign up for indentured servitude. His song “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die” showed this cast had greatness at every level from leads to the ensemble.
We find that these ruffians are about the most sensitive slobs on the sea unable to take advantage of anyone claiming to be an orphan. Meanwhile, Ruth who is 30 years Frederic’s senior wants the young man to wed her, but as he has never seen another female face, he wants to look around before deciding his fate, but consents if indeed there is no one better. But wouldn’t you know it, a dozen gorgeous women just happened to be waiting at the next port. These vixen women are the wards of a modern major General, General Stanley, hilariously portrayed by James Mills. The pirates are about to make their move to kidnap and wed these ladies but are of course talked out of it when the general tells his unfortunate tale of his status as an orphan.
These young women are dressed so beautifully, costume designer Gail Wofford has certainly an eye for the times, and the ladies are dressed in the finest frocks, bonnets and undergarments of the day. Colors, fabrics and attention to detail, this was one of the best costumed shows I have seen off the Broadway stage. Unable to give named credit to my favorite dancer throughout, as I did not get to meet the cast, you will know her by her plucky bouncing with a dress that accentuated what my daughters thought most important in a dress, and that is, its “spinability.” The pirates too were dashing, and the Pirate King’s plumage added a certain pluck to the pirates. But this is no ordinary performance; this concert occurred on a 90 degree evening in June. How I pitied the well-dressed men and women on stage, wearing 20 pound costumes they certainly deserved some air conditioning. Their well-deserved standing ovation and 10 curtain calls, may have cooled their spirits.
Gilbert and Sullivan rewrote the rules for patter, creating the song Modern Major General. Attempted by many but accomplished by few, this song is apparently used for elocution exercises for speech students. Mr. Mills solo starts out clear and fast, stopping to ask the chorus to help him rhyme, he speeds up like a locomotive to produce one of the best renditions of this hilariously impossible number I have ever witnessed live. Sure the movie is great, but how many takes did George Rose have before he got it right. Live theater, and he was fabulous!
Mabel, one of the wards is positively adorable as she shows herself in lust/love with Frederic. Played by Sarah Caldwell Smith, I have rarely seen a soprano with this range, power, and beauty. She has the innocent quality of Kristen Chenoweth and the diva rich sound of Idina Menzel. If I had Ursula’s powers from Little Mermaid, Ms. Smith’s voice is the one I would take.
Meanwhile Frederic denounces his love for Ruth in favor of Mabel. The Pirate King and Ruth come back claiming that Frederic is still bound by duty to complete his servitude as he was born on February 29th, and has only had 5 birthdays. The ensemble of the police, here to fight the pirates are a handsome and cowardly group. David Auxier leads them tall and fit, his dance and demeanor reminded me of Dick Van Dyke’s quiet effortless movement. He was again a treasure to watch and listen.
And of course these particular pirates are really just misunderstood noblemen, we end our opera on a high note. And though many of my more high brow theater lovers may enjoy a show that makes you think, I prefer a production that leaves me with a smile on my face, a tune stuck in my head, and not a worry in the world.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one 20-minute intermission.
The Pirates of Penzance was performed on Saturday, June 13, 2015 at Wolf Trap — 1635 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. To see a list of upcoming events at Wolf Trap and purchase tickets, go to their click calendar of events, or click here for information on New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players.