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Pirates of Penzance Charms, Entertains

Opera Grand Rapids' staging of Pirates of Penzance, far from a museum piece, reveals the humor and charm pumping through the show's heart.
Steven Condy as Major General Stanley

Steven Condy as Major General Stanley /Joel Bissell/Opera Grand Rapids

Gilbert and Sullivan, those swashbuckling Victorian showmen, had a gift for creating shows so entertaining that you could easily miss how well they were made. Ostensibly serious theater, with its obvious gestures toward importance, often has a leaden quality. Gilbert and Sullivan's comedies, by contrast, seem light as air. But levitation is no mean feat. 

The Pirates of Penzance, recently put on by Opera Grand Rapids, practically floated across the stage. And it was a charming stage -- done in a manner that, remisicent of old advertising, was vintage but not distancing.

As conductor Austin McWilliams' hat bounced gloriously, members of the Grand Rapids Symphony began to play. Several men and one woman took the stage: bucklers of swashes all. Central was Frederic (Drake Dantzler), a noble-minded young man who had just attained twenty-one years (well, sort of -- he was born during a leap year, a fact that became important later). He had devoted himself wholly to his apprenticeship, but was now to be released into the wide world -- a world of major-generals and unmarried young women.

The plot hummed along as gracefully as a P.G. Wodehouse novel, introducing problems the solutions for which we couldn't anticipate but which, we were sure, would come in good time. But plots aren't much without characters. Fortunately, great ones abounded: The oddly scrupulous Pirate King (Andrew Potter); Major General Stanley (Steven Condy), who proves both over- and undereducated; the Sergeant of Police (Trent Broussard), all the braver for being not at all brave; Ruth (Diane Schoff), the hearing-impaired maid who fatefully misheard "pirate" as "pilot."

Humor tends to expire quickly, at least relative to other art. Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata still moves us, but man are his standup specials corny. One of the astonishments of Gilbert and Sullivan's work is how much of the humor still feels fresh. Pirates of Penzance is over 140 years old, but it had audience members laughing, genuinely laughing -- not because they wanted to appear smart, but because they couldn't help it.

Most widely recognizable of the show's songs is "I Am The Very Model of a Modern-Major General General," a high-wire act of impressive vocabulary and absurd rhymes. Condy pulled it off beautifully. But Pirates is not a one-hit wonder; the show is all killer and no filler, as they used to say back in the days when "fire" was not yet an adjective.

Pirates of Penzance's consciously minor ambition is to entertain. To do so, it needs to succeed on all levels: not just in its writing, which has proved resilient, but in productions' costuming, choreography, singing, and more. By securing that success, Opera Grand Rapids staged one of its most enjoyable shows. Long may its black flag fly.




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