Joseph Papp's production of "The Pirates of Penzance," which began its happy career in Central Park before moving on to Broadway, is back in the great outdoors again--at Wolf Trap's Meadow Center for a run through Sunday.
If it's subtleties (or lyrics) you want, you'd do just as well to look elsewhere. But if you are content with a boisterous display of colorful antics, not the least of which are provided by the orchestra, then this production is probably worth your summer's evening. It stars George Rose, a grand hunk of whiskered ham, as that "very model of a modern Major-General"; Maureen Brennan as his dainty daughter Mabel, and William Katt as the swashbuckling king of a crew of inept pirates.
Only Katt comes in distinctly below the mark. With his flossy manner and his pretty-boy Hollywood looks, he's a pirate kinglet at best, and his singing voice is as washed out as his curly locks under the bright lights. Although teen-age girls may palpitate at his tanned presence, their affections are more likely to be captured by Lou Valenzi.
Valenzi plays Frederic, the indentured pirate who is taking leave of this rapscallion crew on his 21st birthday, until it is discovered that he was born on leap year and is therefore officially a mere five years old. He has a splendid singing voice, crisp diction and a modest bashfulness in reverse proportion to his musical gifts. Courting the major general's giddy daughters in "Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast," he strikes just the right mix of romantic hero and pop idol. When occasional duets and trios happen to bring him and Katt together, Katt fades like old wallpaper.
Carrying on like an oversized bumblebee in a rose garden, Rose buzzes through his patter songs with flush aplomb. He's a decided asset, especially if you saw the somewhat thick-tongued treatment the role received at the National Theatre a couple of seasons ago. Brennan brings a lovely soprano to Mabel's laments, while Mary Stout is robustly down-at-the-mouth as Frederic's heartsick, 47-year-old nurse.
The production, of course, made its name by giving Gilbert & Sullivan a good shot in the arm, beginning with the rambunctious orchestrations by William Elliott, which forego the usual tinkly pleasures for the rousing delights of slurring trombones, clashing cymbals and booming base drums. At Wolf Trap, the rejuvenated score is played with equivalent gusto by musicians who are not above participating in the fray onstage and loving it.
The original Papp production also turned the pirate king into a broad buffoon, who pins his own foot to the floor with his rapier; the usual sweet maidens lost much of their grace in their mad gambol for husbands, and a regiment of Keystone Kops, afraid of their own whistles, was unleashed in the second act to do battle with the pirates. While a few purists may continue to fan themselves in indignation, it now seems incontestable that Papp and his crew have put their stamp on Gilbert & Sullivan for at least a generation.
The broad touches are precisely what register in the wide open spaces, of which the Meadow Center stage is an unfortunate, although, for the time being necessary, example. You may not always know what the cast members are singing about so vigorously, but whatever's on their minds, they all appear to be having a whale of a time. More often than not, the liveliness is contagious.
While the sound system had its usual hitches last night, Wolf Trap officials assure that it's being worked on. What can be done with Katt is another problem entirely--one not so easily solved.
THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. By Gilbert & Sullivan. Directed by R. Derek Swire from the original direction by Wilford Leach; Graciella Daniele's choreography recreated by Craig Schaefer; musical adaptation, William Elliott; musical direction, Manford Abrahamson; scenery, Robert Berg; lighting, Gregory C. MacPherson; costumes, Carl Heastand. With George Rose, William Katt, Maureen Brennan, Lou Valenzi, Mary Stout, Alan Gilbert, Art Neill. At Wolf Trap's Meadow Center through Aug. 7.