Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance" has had such a run recently, thanks principally to Broadway Joe Papp, Linda Ronstadt and pirate kings Kevin Kline and Jim Belushi, that one might wonder what tricks PBS' "Compleat Gilbert and Sullivan" uses to try to lift its version above the crowd.
With wondrous good sense, it doesn't do anything. The production tonight at 9 on Channel 26 is about as traditional as any D'Oyly Carte purist could want. In fact, the policemen, those marvelously bumbling and semicowardly fellows, clear precursors of Inspector Clouseau, are almost too low-key. And of course there are no "Go Ye Heroes" encores.
But why quibble? As the quivering cops sing, "Still, perhaps it would be wise/ Not to carp or criticize . . ."
Not a note, not a verse, barely a line is cut. Of course, "Pirates" is quite short, as G & S goes. Even Papp had to add a song from "Pinafore" to keep Ronstadt's Mabel fully occupied. But the whole "orphan"/ "often" exchange -- the progenitor of the Marx brothers' "viaduct"/"vhy a duck" routine and the classic Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" -- is maintained intact.
"Pirates" is full of Gilbert's mischief and some of Sullivan's best-known tunes, including the one that, if he'd written nothing else, would have made him famous -- "Come Friends Who Plough the Sea" in the operetta, but "Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here" to almost everybody else.
Keith Michell is quite as good a modern major general as I have seen, and Peter Allen, the Australian cabaret singer once married to Liza Minnelli, is an adequate pirate king, if not up to either Kline or Belushi in the Papp stage and/or screen versions.
Gillian Knight is a ruthless Ruth, and Janis Kelly and Alexander Oliver are fine as the wimpy lovers Mabel and Frederic, although Oliver is a bit mature-looking, especially noticeable because Frederic, "having been born in leap year on the 29th of February is, if we go by birthdays, only five and a little bit over." ("Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.")
This is a classic production of a classic operetta. Tape it and let your kids watch it again and again -- with libretto in hand, if possible. It is really one to grow up on.