Pirates of Penzance, at Wharf Theater, Aug 3, 2013

The Duty of Farce, and vice versa

PiratesBy Philip Pearce

It’s singing pirates versus barbershop quartet police on Fisherman’s Wharf these weekends. The Wharf Theater’s rowdy, winning and melodic production of The Pirates of Penzance plays until September 1, and it’s worth a visit.

Gilbert and Sullivan were even bigger names in British theater of the 19th century than Rodgers and Hammerstein were in the American theater of the 20th. Sir Arthur Sullivan sought fame as a composer of grand operas and oratorios but only made it into the big time when teamed up with satirist W. S. Gilbert. Together they created a succession of classic British musical farces like H.M.S. Pinfore, The Mikado and, yes, The Pirates of Penzance.

G and S understood that good farce, like good classical tragedy, is all about obsession. Your lead character takes relentless hold of some admittedly worthy human value and, not unlike some current members of Congress, rides it roughshod through any and all competing values with illogical and disastrous results. Pirates hero Frederic’s obsession is DO YOUR DUTY! That is why, apprenticed by mistake since boyhood to a gang of pirates plying the waters around Penzance, Fred boldly supports their criminal derring-do till the hour he turns 21 and his apprenticeship expires. He then fights just as valiantly to thwart his former cutthroat pals with the help of some pre-Hollywood Keystone Cop types. Sound silly? You get the idea, and it’s all served up with delicious show tunes that have been pleasing crowds since 1879.

Let’s face it, much of the humor (humour?) is (a) outdated and (b) British, so this production, as part of the Fisherman’s Wharf vacation scene, has to work hard to make all that punning and verbal foolery at least minimally accessible to a 21st century audience. A good initial choice is some pre-show indoctrination from C. Kelly Pohl, who plays the amiable pirate Samuel, (actually, they’re all amiable wimps, which is part of the joke). Pohl’s essential message is (a) Penzance is a vacation spot in the extreme southwestern end of England and (b) proper audience behavior at a live not a TV show is to strangle your cell phones but feel free to hiss or applaud what happens on stage. Then, to be safe, and for intermission reading for the now-befuddled, the program carries a full two-page glossary of puzzling Britishisms, most of them from Ken Cussen’s rapid fire show-stopping “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”

Director Gin Welch-Hagen has the cast play it brisk and accessible, acting out whatever jokes can take it and playing it for broad belly laughs. It works much of the time, though I got a little weary of the relentless repetition of an initially funny group hand salute every time anyone said Frederic’s favorite mantra “duty.”

The main treasure of this fast and furious production is the voices, and the orchestral wonders worked at a single synthesizer by musical director George Peterson. Keith Wolhart has a pleasing tenor voice and an innocent deer-in-the-headlights gape that is perfect for the noble and essentially stupid Frederic. As his lively dumb blonde sweetheart Mabel, Suzanne Wood looks delicious, sings her ballads beautifully and does coloratura gymnastics worthy of a Met soprano. The real cause of the troubles that plague everybody in the goofy plot is Ruth, Frederic’s former nursemaid, who dumped him into piracy by misunderstanding in order to apprentice him to an English Channel pilot. Get it? Well, for some unaccountable reason the guilty lady is now an indispensable female Penzance pirate and played, at last Friday’s performance, with tremendous comic and vocal skill by Rebel Harrell-Von Yerzy, who apparently backs into the chorus and turns over the role to Alyca Tanner at some performances. Jared Warren Hussey, a leering and energetic Pirate King, and Ken Cusson, the pompous but sneaky Major General Stanley, both maneuver the musical depths and shoals of everything from baritone bravado to lighting fast patter—the 19th century equivalent of modern rap. The police are led by a basso sergeant artfully sung by Chris Harrell. And the chorus seems to be filled with attractive people any of whom could step effortlessly into a lead role if one or more principals actually did break a leg.

If I have a quibble, it’s the 8:30 starting hour, which sends you home just this side of 11 p.m. Probably convenient for seven o’clock wharf dinner customers, but, as the Brits say, “what you win on the swings you lose on the roundabouts.” What may attract a tourist may discourage a local. A family group seated next to me responded enthusiastically to all of Act I, but were among those who didn’t return after the intermission.

That’s all from me for a while. I’m off for some really intense theatergoing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. See you in a week or two.