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Thursday, February 19, 2004

Ripping Off Kristy McNichol

Note: If you don't know what The Pirate Movie is, I'm torn between envying you and forcing you to watch it

After making the appropriate blood sacrifices, I managed to get Dress Circle tickets for Pirates of Penzance tickets as an early birthday present for the Sweet Boo Boo. That's the good news. The bad news, of course, is that they were for a Tuesday night on the week that I had given an exam and set zoo reports to be due. In other words, metric buttloads o' work and no Tuesday night in which to do it. Plus, bonus sleep deprivation courtesy of going into Castle Demented early on Tuesday.

Ok, whining over, 'cause it rocked. Front row, center, first balcony does not suck in a serious way, and Gilbert & Sullivan is ideal for orchestra watchin and everyone was clearly having a grand time. Sir Andrew looked like a wee lad, frisking about like a little space lamb. The staging was absolutely inspired. The house curtain rose, revealing a trompe l'oiel of a red velvet theatre curtain hanging from proscenium (nice detail all the way down to the "VR" on the tiebacks). It extended across the middle third of the stage, leaving stage right and stage left visible to the audience even during scene changes.

The curtain raised on the pirates in their secret cave, represented by a second "proscenium" set down just behind the curtain. The cave proscenium was fantastically done up as crystals jutting toward the center of the stage. It's hard to describe the technique, but they almost looked rotoscoped---quite deliberately one step less "real" than the curtain, and the booty scattered around the stage one step less real than that. The crown jewel of the booty is a huge, ridiculously tasteful, armoire set upstagemost and surrounded by a series of oil paintings. More genteel booty was never obtained on the high seas.

The pirates themselves were excellently campy in costume, choreography, and, of course, vocal roles. The Pirate King (Kevin Langan) had a fantastic voice and an impressively tatooed bald head. Frederick, for contrast, sported a huge blonde fro that made James Marsters's "Fool for Love" wig look tasteful and understated. Roger Honeywell (Frederic) is not the purest tenor I've ever heard, but then again he really ought not to be. Plus, he was in the last episode of Forever Knight, one of the most unintentionaly amusing hours of television ever written. In general, the pirates had exactly the right comic touch interacting with one another, down to the many secret handshake. Things fell apart a bit with Ruth who seemed to be playing the comedy more broadly than the boys. Her voice was well-suited to a pretty thankless role, though, and she and Frederic were good one-on-one with one another.

The scene change to the ladies Stanley on the beach occurred without a curtain drop. The cave proscenium was flown out and an almost insufferably pink (and weirdly edgy in its cutesiness) bower was lowered in topped by a cameo portrait of Victoria herself. The ladies fluttered, many in bathing costumes and wigs to outdo Frederick's. The choreography was fantastic as they wended their way around the proscenium arch and in and out of changing tents near the wings, culminating in truly inspired synchronized dancing with hula-hoops.

All 80 bajillion of the women were good, and Lauren McNeese was, as always, a stand out as Edith. Mabel's "reveal" (she bursts out of a changing tent, fully decked out in a gown that's striped, laced, bustled, and puffed to within an inch of its life, announcing herself) was perfectly timed. Mabel is a role that needed to be written.

I love a good coloratura role, I really do (although an allergy attack the night we went to see Lucia di Lammermoor [yeah, I know, not written as a coloratura, but certainly has become one] made the combination of sleepiness in Act I and the dynamics issues that almost always go along with coloraturas a bit nerve-wracking). M, less so (he calls it "that Snow White singing"; he's even white trashier than I am). So a parody coloratura has something for everyone, and Elizabeth Futral was charming if not quite as energetic as the rest of the cast.

I'm shamed to admit that it took me until well into the Beachfront scenes when the pirates arrive (a dozen of them stuffed inside a now-mobile changing tent) to realize that there was yet another layer of brilliant artifice in the set design. As I was trying to determine whether they had meant to waft the Jolly Roger down twice or if it had gotten hung up the first time and there were stage crew furiously troubleshooting, I suddenly saw something that had been hiding in plain sight.

Downstage of and slightly above the second prosceniums (proscenia?) that were flown in to establish scene, there was a third arch that extended the entire width of the stage's actual proscenium. It was contructed to look like a filigreed, wrought iron gazebo top winging outward from the center of the stage, with paired supports at the level of each row of tormentors, which I suddenly realized were all "fakes" too. It was hard to tell from our angle, but they almost looked like tall plywood rectangles with their bottoms scalloped to resemble curtains.

Ultimately, the gazebo effect is in place to set the stage for Act II, which largely takes place in the Stanleys' solarium. However, its permanent installation gives impression that the audience is watching the events of figures in a music box or snow globe. It also somehw reminded me of scenes of the cages in the London Zoo in the original Cat People (insert M mocking me about Picket Fences here).

Neil Davies was an excellent Major-General (with the most fabulous hat imaginable) and held true to his promise to actually sing the role. During his first song (you know the one) the most hideous, jingoistic pro-Britain banner I'd ever seen, with tower guards rushing toward the foreground amid canon fire. It made me feel that Americans simply aren't ugly enough. It was brilliant.

In Act II, the the very amateurish sea backdrop (complete with pirate ship in incorrect perspective!) that was present the whole time has the scrim representing the back wall of the Stanleys' solarium dropped in front of it. When the faux curtain rose to reveal the cutout fountain and urns, it was as if everything snapped into place---everything we'd been watching was revealed as deception, but as we'd been led by the hand to that conclusion, the feeling was one of being in on a grand joke, rather than betrayl. I know this sounds incredibly goofy, but I just can't communicate how freaking inspired this set design was and how it underscored how you can really do this ridiculous comic opera as subversive satire, laying bare the foolish consistency that motivates everyone in the piece.

The cops got to do their number while being served tea out of a comically large, red kettle. They dropped in a wide canvas with a vintage advertisement for the police: "FAMOUS CRIMES SOLVED!" I'd have gone with Lombroso's cranial typology of criminals, but then I would, wouldn't I? I can't say enough good things about Peter Rose as the Sergeant of Police. Not only was his voice exactly right, he nailed the accent, too---such a painful, painful experience if the actor doesn't.

It was a practically perfect production in every way, although I do have to question Queen Victoria being dressed in shiny purple when they revealed her at the end. The likeness was so striking, I found myself wondering if she was made of felt, and if her nose came off.

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