Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review: 'The Pirates of Penzance'

Virginia Opera, Joseph Walsh conducting
Nov. 23, Landmark Theater, Richmond

The operettas of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are an acquired taste, requiring an ear for preciously phrased sarcasm and sufficient knowledge of Victorian English history, manners and mores to get Gilbert’s jokes. Ill-equipped on those scores, you may find "The Pirates of Penzance" to be more cartoon than satire, and too prissy for comfort.

Virginians of a certain age and background are among the most hardcore of American Anglophiles, and they’re turning out in force for the Virginia Opera’s "Pirates."

Still, stage director William Theisen takes no chances on the show's not connecting with moderns. Theisen, vividly assisted by set designer Chris Clapp and costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan, has fashioned a bright, manic, thoroughly over-the-top production, seemingly cast with veterans of Phony British Accent Reader’s Theater and Talk Like a Pirate Day. The women cavort like college boys in drag, and the men act as if they’re in a Monty Python skit. Queen Victoria herself descends on the proceeedings in the finale, and even she would be amused.

William Ferguson, a Richmonder building an international career as an operatic and art-song tenor, is unquestionably the star of this show. He is the best singer and clearest speaker in the cast, and wears the proto-Dudley Doright role of Frederic like a second skin. Alcia Berneche is almost as persuasive as Mabel, the object of Frederic’s desire. Her bel canto is show-stoppingly vertiginous; she just needs a little more irony to go with her wide-eyed winsomeness.

In the first of two Richmond performances, Ferguson and Berneche received theatrically adept but vocally variable support from Dominic M. Aquillino (the Pirate King), Chris Mooney (Samuel) and Jonathan Kimple (the Sergeant of Police). In the two broadest comic roles, Gary Briggle (the Major General ) and Myrna Paris (Ruth) had all the right moves but were sorely taxed vocally. Choruses too often turned into tonal traffic jams.

Conductor Joseph Walsh obtained an alert, animated reading of Sullivan’s Mozartian-cum-Rossiniesque score from members of Norfolk’s Virginia Symphony.

Although "Pirates" is sung in English, the projected captions come in handier than usual. The show's dialogue and patter numbers are mostly unintelligible in the Landmark Theater, and probably won't be much clearer in the Fairfax venue.

The Virginia Opera’s "Pirates of Penzance" concludes its run with performances at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 25 at Richmond Landmark Theater, and 8 p.m. Nov. 30 and 2 p.m. Dec. 2 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax. Tickets: $20-$85 (Richmond), $44-$94 (Fairfax). Details: (804) 262-8100 (Richmond), (703) 218-6500 (Fairfax),