Gilbert & Sullivan got a big shot in the arm 26 years ago when The New York Shakespeare Festival presented a hipper, livelier adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance than had been seen in many years. It broke from the old-fashioned stuffiness that for decades had been (unfairly) associated with comic operas like The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore by embracing and playing up its 19th century theatrics. It wasn't exactly a spoof - Pirates was, after all, a comedy to begin with - more a spirited and affectionate send-up, much like Burt Lancaster's The Crimson Pirate (1952) had done to earlier lighthearted swashbucklers.
The surprising array of talent didn't hurt. No one had ever expected pop star Linda Ronstadt and teen idol Rex Smith (as Mabel and Frederic, both in excellent voice) in this sort of thing, but the real surprise was a largely unknown young actor named Kevin Kline, marvelous as the grand and rascally if somewhat dense Pirate King. The show was a big hit, running 787 performances on Broadway, proving so popular that its ensemble cast appeared as the musical guests one week on Saturday Night Live.
A performance with most the original cast was preserved and is available on DVD via the Kultur label. This isn't that. Nor is this the oddball 1983 film version, again with most of the original cast, which had the unusual distinction of being released theatrically and to premium cable television simultaneously. Nor is it to be confused with 1983's The Pirate Movie, that bizarre merging of 19th century operetta and early '80s teen romance.
No, this Pirates of Penzance is a videotaped performance from 1994, produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Though staged many years after the New York hit, its roots are in this same production, as much of the choreography, humor, and bits of business are retained.**
Unfortunately, this particular version is astonishingly bad, though to some degree in the end Gilbert & Sullivan's songs win out. On the eve of his 21st birthday, young Frederic (Simon Gallaher) is released from his years of indentured apprenticeship with the Pirates of Penzance, led by the lusty Pirate King (Jon English, with proto-mullet and suggesting Alice Cooper). But Frederic's sense of duty compels him to fight his former comrades for the good of England. Matters are complicated further when Frederic falls for Mabel (Helen Donaldson), the youngest and prettiest daughter of Major-General Stanley (Derek Metzger). This does not sit well with Frederic's middle-aged former nursemaid, Ruth (Toni Lamond), who also loves him, and together with the Pirate King find a paradox that may force Frederic to remain a pirate well into the 20th century!
The one-two punch in this Pirate's gut is the appalling performance by Jon English as the Pirate King and the grievously unfunny liberties taken with the source material.
English, strutting about with a self-satisfied smugness, winks, grins, and bats his eyes at the audience without mercy. He shamelessly attempts to steal one scene after another, frequently baring his chest to no one in particular. The Pirate King is himself enormously conceited, of course, but instead of Kline's charming rogue English is merely insufferable.
The rest of the cast is no better than adequate, with Gallaher and Lamond coming off best, while Metzger's rubber-faced Major-General looks about 30 years too young for the part. Fortunately, the entire cast can at least sing, including English, and this compensates somewhat.
However, the singing is constantly interrupted by miserable attempts at humor, some of which originated (and was more successfully realized) in the Broadway production, while other bits of business are apparently original to this adaptation. For example, the famously tongue twisting "(I Am the Very Model of) A Modern Major-General" has been stretched to an interminable length by some extraordinarily idiotic comedy better suited to a Farrelly Bros. movie, including one bit where the Major-General interrupts his own song to pull a bouquet of flowers out of his anus then, upon handing the flowers to one of his daughters, warns her to wash her hands!
Beyond the extraordinary bad taste of this literal gag, it thwarts the very charm of the song, the uninterrupted rocket-paced patter with its ingenious lyrics.
Video & Audio
The Pirates of Penzance was shot standard frame on videotape and looks unexceptional, though okay. The Dolby 2.0 stereo is likewise reasonably good but nothing special. Another big flaw is the absence of English subtitles, which might have at least permitted the viewer to sing along. There are no Extra Features.
Hang these Pirates from the highest yardarm!
**This critic saw an excellent West End production in 1982 starring Tim Curry as the Pirate King. Almost all the humor inherent in that and the earlier New York productions are carried over in the 1994 version. Badly.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.