Pirates of Penzance

By Jocelyn McMahon

TO SAY PIRATES OF PENZANCE is a delight would be an understatement. It’s a musical treasure. The 1879 farcical operetta, also known as The Slave of Duty, employs the wit of WS Gilbert’s hilarious libretto with the musical genius of Arthur Sullivan’s sophisticated score, creating a musical parody like no other. It pokes fun at the world of opera, allowing the performers to laugh at themselves and audience members to laugh along with them. Imagine a sidesplitting SNL sketch that leaves you winded and crying of laughter, but for two hours straight.

Before I dive too far into the pool of why UCSC’s Pirates of Penzance, directed by Sheila Willey, was an excellent choice for the 2019 season, I should say that this show was double cast and names mentioned are only an assessment of the Friday/Sunday cast I had the pleasure of seeing.

Ok back to the good stuff. Synopsis: We meet Frederic our protagonist, played by charming tenor Brett Crockett, who is accompanied by a band of pirates on an unidentified beach somewhere unknown, but much resembles Santa Cruz. Having reached his 21st birthday, Frederic has finally completed the length of his term as an indentured apprentice to a group of pirates, who, despite the nature of their trade, are surprisingly sympathetic. We soon discover the apprenticeship was in fact a mistake made when Ruth, Frederic’s nursery-maid, played rather humorless and miscast by Olivia Adolph, admits that when he was a young lad she mistook the word “pilot” for “pirate”.

I was a stupid nurserymaid,
On breakers always steering,
And I did not catch the word aright,
Through being hard of hearing;
Mistaking my instructions,
Which within my brain did gyrate,
I took and bound this promising boy
Apprentice to a
pirate.
A sad mistake it was to make
And doom him to a vile lot.
I bound him to a pirate – you –
Instead of to a pilot.

Adolph’s voice is pleasant enough, but her lack of energy was disappointing for a role characterized by its over-the-top archetype of an aging woman. Some of the most hilarious lines were wasted in both dialogue and song.

After admitting his loathing of piracy, Frederic abandons the surprised pirates to find his way by devoting himself to the goal of exterminating the life of piracy once and for all. That goal is quickly put on the backburner as he meets a gaggle of ladies on the beach, the daughters of Major General Stanley, instantly falls in love with Mabel, played by the show-stopping Kelly Rasmussen, who instantly reciprocates Frederic’s mad desire. The pirates soon swoop in and “capture” the ladies—there is very little resistance from the girls who themselves seem quite intrigued. Within the chaos, General Stanley, the energetic and adept Zade Dardari, who introduces himself in perhaps the most iconic number of the show: “I am the very model of a modern Major-General“. The empathetic pirates return the daughters to their father and Mabel and Frederic fall down the cliché rabbit hole of love; all seems happily ever after-esque.

But luck is not in Frederic’s favor as he discovers that his apprenticeship is in fact not over, as he is supposed to be released at age 21, and his birthday falls on February 29th (leap year), making him legally only 5. Since it is his “duty,” an interesting comment on the odd morals of opera, he returns to the pirates promising to join Mabel again in 1940 when he’ll legally be 21, but actually 84. Of course, she promises to wait for him.

One thing that Pirates of Penzance does not hold back is the commentary on the clichés of classical opera and musical theater. Well before it’s time, the humor, emphasized in the choices made by UCSC’s production, highlights the ridiculous themes seen time and again, including instant romance and love at first sight, the power of a strict controlling father, the absurd requirements of nobility and the lack of ambition from any of the central female characters. As director Sheila Willey stated in last week’s GoodTimes article:

“It is always a challenge to figure out how to present some of the dated (and sometimes harmful) tropes that show up in much of the (opera) repertoire. In Pirates, we are faced with sexism and ageism as General Stanley’s daughters are not written with much agency or obvious aspirations beyond marriage. In our production, the daughters are able to choose whichever pirate they’d like. It’s not much, but something.”

I think the cross-gender casting decision was a great choice of the Opera Department’s 2019 production of Pirates, and the tongue in cheek humor makes a clear statement pointing out how far we have (or haven’t) come over the years.

The beach-like setting of the show, complete with pirate ships, cliffy coastlines, sandy beaches and the whole shebang, was well-suited for the backdrop of a UCSC production. Simplistic, yet appropriate, the set fit well and kept scene-changes to a minimum, not distracting from the priority of the show: the singing. The swanky screen projections highlighted images of Santa Cruz beaches—no I didn’t miss them—and allowed us to be transported to different locations. The 19th century costumes, though nothing too elaborate, were well-designed, most notably daughters’ dresses in their first appearance in Act 1.

While obviously a college production, with varying levels of experience from performers, the show was overall a success. One of the most notable performances of the night had to be Zade Dardari, who has participated in UCSC’s Opera Program for the last three years and presents a professional grade performance of the iconic Major-General Stanley. Vocally superb, Dardari’s rendition of the grueling tongue-twister of the aforementioned “I am the very model…” was executed with ease, every word enunciated and every comedic nuance achieved.

A powerful soprano, fourth-year music student Kelly Rasmussen was on fire from the minute she entered on stage. Rasmussen went above and beyond, as she sketched the comedic ingénue Mabel precisely. Her voice is pure and golden, like that of Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, while her mastery of comedic timing, movement and facial expression is similar to the likes of comedian Kate McKinnon.

As Frederic, Brett Crockett carried the weight of the show on his shoulders, and he did it quite well, appearing in almost every scene and the majority of songs. His tenor has a soft, but masculine beauty to it, and his duets with Rasmussen are extra-powerful, my favorite being “Stay, Fred’ric, stay.” 

The voice of Christian Bernal, who played Samuel, the right-hand man to the Pirate King, was definitely a stand-out. His lovely baritone rang out through the theater in every number he was in, and though not one of the core characters, he definitely exhibited his experience as a vocalist.

As for acting, the Police Sergeant, played by Blake Danner, and his police force—a flock of lanky bumbling British officers—may have stolen the show. Utilizing horseplay and buffoonery they captured the physical humor through song and dance in a way that can only be described as a troupe of gangly comedic giraffes.

These singers had nothing to complain about. From overture to bows, the student orchestra, directed and conducted by Assistant Professor of Music Bruce Kiesling, was on point, never missing a beat and receiving a full audience standing ovation at the end of the show.

My disappointment does not lie in the show itself, but the fact that it only ran one weekend.  UCSC’s 2019 Pirates of Penzance was a delightful comedic operetta that showcased the gifted singers, actors, comics and dancers of the department. After so much hard work and dedication—it was cast last fall—two performances per cast just doesn’t seem like enough. Always leave them wanting more I guess.