The Pirates of Penzance

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Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” that enduring, extremely British operetta full of fast rhymes and delightful wordplay, is given more than adequate treatment by the Utah Lyric Opera Society at Springville’s Villa Playhouse Theatre.

One of the few shows to survive more than a century with losing its charm, “Pirates” is the story of a fellow named Frederic (Gregory Oaks) who has grown up on a ship full of the most genteel, orphan-respecting pirates you could hope for. Upon his 21st birthday, his apprenticeship is done and he heads ashore. He takes his nanny, Ruth (Nannette Wiggins; double-cast with Linda Jacobs), along with him, but is angry when he discovers that, contrary to what she had told him, she’s not very pretty (he’s never seen another woman, you see):

FREDERIC: You told me you were fair as gold!
RUTH: And, master, am I not so?
FREDERIC: And now I see you’re plain and old.
RUTH: I’m sure I’m not a jot so.
FREDERIC: Upon my innocence you play.
RUTH: I’m not the one to plot so.
FREDERIC: Your face is lined, your hair is grey.
RUTH: It gradually got so.

So instead he falls for Mabel (Margo Watson; double-cast with Lisa Mortenson), one of a dozen or so daughters of Major-General Stanley (Benny B. Ashby; double-cast with Howard Ruff). Simultaneously, the pirates fall for the rest of Stanley’s daughters. To prevent them from stealing his girls, Stanley tells the pirates he’s an orphan, which plays upon their sympathies. But when they learn of his lie, hoo, boy, that’s when things start gettin’ zany!

Fantastic singing voices are the rule in this production, with nearly every principal character exceeding all expectations. A few stand out as especially fantastic, though, including Michelle Caswell as one of Stanley’s daughters, Edith, and Gregory Oaks as Frederic.

William S. Gilbert’s lyrics are ingeniously crafted, full of magnificent, inventive rhymes and sparkling wit, as in the exchange previously quoted. The problem, however, is that when the tempo gets fast, the cast begins to trip over the lyrics, hurrying toward the clever rhymes and not enunciating the words in between. This is particularly true in “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” whose very premise is that the puffed-up fellow can sing fast and rhyme well (“lot o’ news” and “hypotenuse,” for example) — but in this production, half the time you can’t understand him. The police sergeant’s song suffers similarly from poor diction.

Aside from that, and some lame running gags (I have never seen so many characters’ toes stomped on accidentally for the sake of humor), and a superfluous unscripted cameo by the show’s producer Ewan Harbrecht Mitton as Queen Victoria — aside from all that, the show is a surprisingly jolly, highly enjoyable treat.

This was a momentous occasion in my theater-reviewing career, for it was the first time in 20 months that I returned to the site of the Worst Play Ever.

That's right, the Villa Playhouse in Springville, Utah, was home to "The Storm Testament," which was the single most horrible theatrical presentation in the history of mankind. Truly, the devil himself could not have spawned a worse show, and after I saw it, it was all I could do not to kill myself, let alone return to that theater.

Also, the Villa Playhouse didn't exactly want me to return. They never said specifically that the Herald shouldn't send me to review their shows, but it was kind of understood. Plus, I knew there was every chance subsequent shows would be bad, too, and I saw no reason to add more negative reviews to my portfolio than were absolutely necessary.

Now that I was working full-time for the Herald, though, and was pretty much the only theater critic, we figured it was time I started going to the Villa again. I tell you, it was hard to walk in there again after all that time. The place still had the stench of death about it, and you could tell a show had died there once. It was haunted by the spirit of mediocrity.

Imagine my delight, then, when "Pirates of Penzance" was pretty good. I will no longer fear the Villa, unless they mount a revival of "Storm Testament," in which case I will flee the country.

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