The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty – Operetta in two Acts; libretto by W. S. Gilbert with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan
Major-General Stanley – Douglas Hodge
The Pirate King – Phillip Boykin
Samuel (His Lieutenant) – Zachary James
Frederic (The Pirate Apprentice) – Hunter Parrish
Sergeant of Police – David Garrison
Mabel – Julia Udine
Edith – Betsy Wolfe
Kate – Montego Glover
Ruth (Pirate Maid-of-all-work) – Deborah Voigt
The Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Ted Sperling – Conductor & Director
Gustavo Zajac – Associate Director & Choreographer
David Korins – Scenic Designer
Frances Aronson – Lighting Designer
Scott Lehrer – Sound Designer
Tracy Christensen – Costume Consultant
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 16 October, 2015
Venue: New York City Center, New York City
Approaching the 75th-anniversary of its founding by the famed Robert Shaw, the Collegiate Chorale has re-branded itself as MasterVoices. Led by artistic director Ted Sperling, and joined by a stellar cast, its 2015-16 Season opened with Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance given in a venue with a half-century association with the “Savoy Operas”.
This complete performance found the nearly-150 members of MasterVoices seated in tiers across the full width of the stage. The only scenery was a backdrop of sky with swags of pennants overhead suggesting a nautical atmosphere in the first Act, later replaced by hanging lanterns and a stone bench to represent Major-General Stanley’s ruined chapel. Costumed members of the ensemble portrayed pirates, policemen and the Major-General’s daughters, they and the MasterVoices singers rendering Gilbert’s clever words with precise diction, and the a cappella ‘Hail Poetry’ near the end of Act One and the great double-chorus in Act Two have never sounded better. The estimable Orchestra of St. Luke’s gave a superb account of Sullivan’s original orchestrations.
Although not primarily identified with Gilbert & Sullivan, those in the principal roles brought great experience to them. Deborah Voigt gave a nuanced portrayal of Ruth, the nursery maid who inadvertently apprentices Frederic, her young charge, to a band of pirates. Her singing was restrained in Act One when seeking to leave the brigands, but became more powerful and operatic once she had truly cast her lot with the troupe. A highlight was the ‘Paradox’ scene in Act Two, Voigt joined in successive trios by Phillip Boykin and Hunter Parrish. Boykin, acclaimed for theater, film and gospel music, made the Pirate King a memorable character with hilarious comedic touches and a deep resonant voice. Parrish, best known for television and film, brought charm and vitality to Frederic, around whom the plot revolves. His pleasing tenor held its own, even when overmatched by more operatic companions.
Tony Award-winner (and Olivier nominee) Douglas Hodge was a wryly amusing Major-General, deftly dashing off his introductory patter song and then bandying words with Boykin as they sought to untangle their confusion of “orphan” with “often”. The insomniac General’s ‘Sighing softly to the river’ in Act Two was very touchingly rendered. Zachary James, an opera singer with considerable experience in musical theater, showed off first-rate timing in his outstanding and amusing portrayal of Samuel, and David Garrison, a veteran of numerous artistic disciplines, was a droll Sergeant of Police, reprising the role he performed thirty-three years ago in the famous Joseph Papp-directed production of ‘Pirates’ by the New York Shakespeare Festival.
Julia Udine was a fine Mabel, showing off her bright coloratura in ‘Poor wandering one’ and singing tenderly in ‘Ah, leave me not to pine’. Betsy Wolfe was broadly humorous as Edith, while Montego Glover as Kate was delightful if more restrained.
This presentation was successful in capturing both the beauty of Sullivan’s music and the charm and wit of Gilbert’s words, which, thanks to the singers’ enunciation and Scott Lehrer’s effective sound design, came through with clarity. The soloists used vocal scores, but the production was so engagingly staged that the presence of copy became a visual distraction as well as limiting gestures and making it difficult or impossible to use props that might have added to the hilarity.