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Yo ho ho, and a bottle of fun

MCT's Pirates of Penzance shivers the timbers



The theme of family once again prevails in MCT’s final show of its regular season, The Pirates of Penzance. This time family is an institution notable for its silliness, though it’s not any sillier than a police force or a band of pirates, and nothing could be sillier than England herself in Gilbert & Sullivan’s gorgeous comedy.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of what Gilbert & Sullivan did, in the same stroke, for music and for language. Each aspect of their work, weighted equally, unites in divine combination, and being present at this production is heaven. In what will be remembered as a turning point of a season for this company, The Pirates of Penzance has sublime force.

Jim Caron—directing, as ever, the musical with the big company—has stepped back. He has done the noblest thing a director can do. Like a tireless parent, he has labored and guided, but in the final assessment, he has let go and sent his creation into the world without needing to bring notice to himself. We still benefit from his keen sense of company movement, his emphasis on ensemble integration (and what better show for such an emphasis?), but he has given the show a true life of its own, which is both a rarity and a gift from a director.

Such strong material as this, naturally, would take center stage regardless, but it also risks overpowering its crew and cast with its demands and complexities—a risk to which the production never succumbs. Caron has kept a firm, guiding hand upon the entire business, letting his years of experience lend a stately composure and confidence to the production.

It would be remiss to single out the director when this show, true to its heritage, benefits so obviously from expert collaboration. The speed and wit of the songs unfold beautifully under Michael McGill’s musical direction (he also conducts, and comically pops up repeatedly from the orchestra box to conduct the cast as well, like some sort of musical groundhog). In a set designed by Brian Harms and Caron, a comical pirate ship does indeed sail onto the stage to applause (a contrast that unfortunately draws attention to the rather boxy, clunky stasis of the rest of the sets). Lisa Jourdannais is credited with the fine and funny police choreography, but the whole show, really, shows off precision choreography of ensemble movement, which I suppose can be credited to Caron.

Led by Curt Olds as the Pirate King—his business in teaching Frederic how to kiss Mabel at the finale is alone worth the price of admission—the cast exceeds expectation. Not only is it blessed with good voices, but the faces are cast for comedy and character as well. The band of daughters in particular has an elastic comedy in its entire physical presence, from demeanor to costume to song. The women, listed as an ensemble, are breathtaking in their finely-tuned coordination, and a great delight. One would want to attend the show at least a couple of times to take in all the subtleties of tying a group of actors together, what makes them work as a team, what makes each one stand out without detracting from the whole.

Frederic and Mabel are played by David Cody and Anne Basinski, each a pleasure, though curiously matched. At last Thursday’s opening, I did not feel a connection between these two lovers, their acting and singing styles are so different. Cody has a soft understatement, a sweetness to him, while Basinski’s formal style conveys an entirely different feel.

Brian Massman scores the role of the Major-General, and he rises to its demanding rigors, comfortable, funny and fast in the patter of his songs. He has great fun with his speaking voice, too, which jumps, whines and wheedles in an endless reinvention of mood.

As the Police Sergeant—a plum and coveted role if ever there was one—Simon Fickinger nearly claims the show for himself in the second act. How much bumbling he brings to his authority, how much authority to his comedy! The policemen’s songs, which dominate the last half of the second act, are wonderful, as Pirates reaches a frenzied joy. Fickinger is in superb command. Not quite as disciplined as the company of daughters, the police officers nevertheless triumph.

To watch Gilbert & Sullivan is to feel elevated in mood and sense. This is a long dead world—not simply the world of English Empire, but the world of over-articulated comedy, of sophisticated verbal play and gymnastic musical glory. It’s a big undertaking to stage Gilbert & Sullivan, not so much because of the size of the cast or the difficulty of the songs, solos and choruses, but because staging such a show requires educating the audience at the same time—an audience used to being numbed instead of excited, spoon-fed rather than welcomed to a finely laid banquet table. This Pirates of Penzance reawakens our sense of theatrical curiosity. For two lovely hours we are the very model of the appreciative audience.

The Pirates of Penzance runs at the Missoula Community Theater through May 11. Weds.–Sat. performances at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Sat. and Sun. matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $14 to $18. Call 728-PLAY for information.

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