“The Pirates of Penzance” by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, Show Review by Andrea Santo Felcone


Some of my happiest childhood memories were spent with my father–at the theater. As an adult, I can appreciate how those experiences shaped me. As a parent, I hope to provide that same spirit of cultural enrichment and generosity, introducing my children to various art forms. When the opportunity to see the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) perform the classic, “The Pirates of Penzance,” arrived, I figured this would be an excellent way for my boys to experience their first comic opera.

A show about pirates! It seemed best to lead with the swashbuckling, sword-thrusting pirate part, and save the opera part for just a bit later. Everyone was on board, (yes, pun-intended) after hearing about pirates. My teen son seemed amused in that noncommittal teenager way; my 8-year-old son was excited.

The Pirates of Penzance
All Photos Credit: Carol Rosegg

I was sure once the show started everything would fall into place. Right? Honestly, once we settled into our seats at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, I was a bit nervous that my youngest might not be as interested as I’d hoped he’d be. However, the NYGASP live orchestra was enchanting and a wonderful way to set the stage for what was to come. As soon as the curtain lifted, my youngest perked up as he watched the colorful pirates–twirling their swords about, singing and dancing, performing their slapstick comedy and causing general mayhem. A glance at my teen, during some of the wittier exchanges, and I knew he was enjoying the performance on a different level. I could relax and settle in for a wonderful afternoon of entertainment.

“The Pirates of Penzance” is nothing if not witty and entertaining. Somehow in all my theater-going years, I had never seen this show. It felt good to right that wrong, and to do so with the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players at the helm. NYGASP is the preeminent Gilbert and Sullivan repertory ensemble led by their Founder and Artistic Director, Albert Bergeret.

The NYGASP has presented thousands of performances throughout the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain, in its esteemed 44-year history, and Bergeret is considered by many to be the “leading custodian of the G&S classics”.

For a show that has enjoyed incredible longevity (it first ran in 1879), you may already be familiar with the plot, but, if not: A young boy named Frederic, is apprenticed to a band of tenderhearted pirates—in error. Frederic’s nursemaid, Ruth, had mistakenly heard “pirate” instead of the
intended, “pilot” for his apprenticeship, and thus changed the course of his life. Although Frederic hated the pirate life, he served dutifully. It helped that his band of pirates were the mild sort–sparing anyone who said they were an orphan. (Of course word of this spreads, and “coincidentally” everyone they meet are “orphans”.)  

Pirates of Penzance<

Frederic is delighted when he reaches the age of 21, having served his apprenticeship, he can now leave the pirate world, vowing to exterminate pirates everywhere. However, in the hilarious, “When You Had Left Our Pirate Fold,” we learn about a snag in Frederic’s plans. It seems Frederic was a leap-year baby, born on February 29th, so although he has served for 21 years, he has not served 21 birthdays, which the pirates insist were the terms of his contract. Frederic, always dutiful, agrees to return to the pirates. (Even in this one clever plot twist you see the genius of Gilbert & Sullivan.)  

While the story of Frederic’s career unfolds, a love story is also developing. Ruth has tried to capture Frederic’s heart by telling him she’s a catch, a true beauty. As Ruth is the only woman Frederic has ever seen, he is inclined to believe her, (actually she’s quite plain and much older than he). However, the jig is up, when Frederic spies a group of enchanting beauties, all daughters to a Major-General Stanley. Frederic renounces Ruth in favor for his new love, Mabel. There’s a bit of back and forth between the pirates, some wonderfully-bumbling police, the beauties, but all ends well in Penzance for Frederic, Mabel, and the pirates–who we are told are really only “noblemen who have gone wrong”.

NYGASP takes great care in keeping the integrity of the original Gilbert & Sullivan material, while adding modern touches. A few of the most notable were the Angry Bird slippers worn by the Major-General and the silver hats the pirates wore for a “Chorus Line” dance number. Each pirate was comical in their own way. The scene-stealing song, as one would expect, was the one most people know: “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”. The Major-General for our performance, James Mills, was excellent. (The role is shared between Mills and David Macaluso as they alternate between the Major and the pirate side-kick Samuel.) Mills’ rendition of a very difficult song–with its tongue-twisting lyrics and fast pace–brought the house down. (Ours was a very enthusiastic audience throughout.) Another scene stealer was “When a Felon’s Not Engaged in His Employment” performed brilliantly by David Auxier and his merry band of bumbling policemen. As far as the romantic leads, our performance featured Sarah Caldwell Smith as Mabel–a truly remarkable voice; and Alex Corson, exuding boyish charm as Frederic, a beautiful voice as well. (It’s interesting to note that the NYGASP structures their performances so those roles are also shared, with Katie Dixon as Mabel, and Carter Lynch as Frederic.)

“The Pirates of Penzance,” as performed by the NYGASP, was a highlight of our holiday break. While this show must require an enormous amount of rehearsal, NYGASP makes it look effortless. The set design, lighting and costumes all married well with the material to create a lovely meld of colors, sights and sounds. Although this particular run of “The Pirates of Penzance” has ended, there will be future opportunities to see the multi-talented NYGASP Company perform their beloved Gilbert & Sullivan. Check their schedule: https://nygasp.org/current-season/ and mark your calendars. Don’t miss this living tribute to Gilbert & Sullivan! 

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