Last night the Weston High School Theatre Company put on a charming performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. The acting and singing were strong; the scenery, set, and costumes terrific; the pit orchestra first-rate. Derek Kief’s portrayal of Frederic was suitably over-the-top, showing a gift for comedy that I hadn’t known was in him. In the other male lead roles — it’s always a tough task to fill these male leads in high-school productions — Quinton Kappel’s Pirate King and Ben Heath’s Police Sergeant were amusingly effective. Both did a fine job; but, of the two roles that stole the show, the male one was clearly Alex Engler’s outstanding performance as Major General Stanley. Strong acting and singing from females is usually not quite so difficult to find in high schools, so it was no big surprise that Erika Grob’s Ruth was convincingly multi-faceted, nor that the bevy of General Stanley’s daughters formed a delightful chorus. The other role that stole the show, the female one, was (appropriately enough) Natalie Birren’s Mabel, fulfilling the operatic expectations of this exceptional coloratura role. And the choruses of pirates and policemen provided amusing comedic touches in their well-coordinated ensemble work. Presumably because of the gender imbalance of available cast, many girls had to double up as pirates and policemen, and there was only a limited attempt to make them up to look like men.
This morning I had to consult two of the most treasured volumes in my home library: Isaac Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan and Martyn Green’s Treasury of Gilbert and Sullivan (an appropriate name for a treasured volume). Both works are highly recommended. Concerning the “orphan/often” puns, Asimov comments that “even the most devoted pun lover might feel a little uneasy at this sequence, and parts of it are sometimes cut in actual performances.” But fortunately nothing was cut from this sequence in the Weston performance.
Alex Engler brought down the house in his flawless, very rapid rendition of the famous Major General’s patter song. A second patter song was added, presumably because this format is such a favorite with audiences: the song from Ruddigore, “My eyes are fully open to my awful situation,” was inserted, slightly changed with substitutions such as Frederic for Roderic. Asimov comments on this song:
This is the fastest of the patter songs… Gilbert was an absolute fiend on having his words heard through and above the music (which must have bothered Sullivan who felt his music was being sacrificed to Gilbert’s words), so it must have cost the librettist a deal to indicate that in this song, at least, hearing the words was all but impossible.
Asimov is referring to the couplet, “This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter/ Isn’t generally heard, and if it is it doesn’t matter!”
And speaking of the Major General’s song, we math teachers always enjoy the various allusions to mathematics in it:
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical
About binomial theorem I am teeming with a lot o’ news [pause to think]
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
I’m very good at integral and differential calculus
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous…
A few other random observations:
- I am not sure why Ruth wasn’t made up to look older and less attractive, as Gilbert makes a point of contrasting her with the General’s daughters.
- Speaking of daughters, I’m not sure why they got changed into General Stanley’s wards.
- Asimov observes that Frederic’s 21st “birthday” wouldn’t actually come until 1944 rather than 1940 as Gilbert claims, since 1900 hadn’t been (wouldn’t be) a leap year! (This is true, despite the fact that the New York Times apparently printed an editorial on February 29, 1940, entitled “Frederic’s out of his indentures.”)
- As is traditional in G&S, a number of small changes were made to enhance the performance, such as looking up into the sky and “estimating” the time as 11:38 (11:30 in the original) — again something especially amusing to math teachers.
Anyway, congratulations to Director John Minigan and all of his fine cast and crew!