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Joyous Pirates in the Park - but expensive!
on 6 December 2011
This review is from: Gilbert & Sullivan - the Pirates of Penzance [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
This joyous experience is the original Delacorte Theater production of 1980, in which Kevin Kline and company exploded onto the stage - and into theatrical history.
Forget the absence of Angela Lansbury - Patricia Routledge is far better. Forget the claim of its being the Broadway version - it isn't. Forget the criticism of its technical quality. No, it does not have the Technicolor brilliance of the film version. Remastered by Kultur from the only remaining and very poor quality video recording, it is certainly not up to today's standards, but NOT as bad as some suggest. And for sheer talent, energy, originality and delight, it is unbeatable,(although possibly not at this price!) a theatrical firework display, and one in which we can also enjoy the audience's delight at the pyrotechnics offered.
Joseph Papp set out to rescue this G&S from the weight of a century of English tradition and to bring back the freshness and fun of the original. Perhaps - and I speak as a Brit - only an American boot up the backside of this English whimsy could have succeeded. And succeed it does, brilliantly, hilariously, exquisitely.
A young Mr Kline, delectable in purple breeches, black top boots and slashed-to-the-waist white shirt, is a Pirate King to die for, (yes, okay, I'm in love!) - dominating the stage with both voice and presence, whilst Linda Ronstadt makes a demurely charming, and musically acrobatic Mabel. If not really up to the vocal demands of the role, Rex Smith is still an attractive, likeable, Frederic, with a nice gift for comedy. Patricia Routledge is superb, from the comical maid-of-all-work in the first scene of Act 1, to the lovesick older woman in the beautifully sung contralto "My love, without reflecting, oh do not be rejecting". Her transformation to She-Pirate in Act 2 is a comic masterpiece, in which she more than holds her own, vocally and physically, with two male leads some twenty years her junior.
For this is very much an ensemble production. The late Tony Azito's Sergeant leads an hysterically funny Chorus of cowardly Police, whilst George Rose's highly educated Major-General who can't tell a "Mauser rifle from a javelin" is one of the great English stage eccentrics. One intriguing piece of theatrical history; in this recording Samuel, the Pirate King's Lieutenant, is sung by Stephen Hanan's understudy, G Edgar Moose. As Mr Hanan's voice was dubbed on the 1983 film, although acted by the forgettable David Hatton, a comparison can be made, and Mr Moose (I am sorry if that sounds like a Woody Allen sketch!) is far better. He acts well with Mr Kline, and their voices blend beautifully - the sobbing tragi-comic duet in "An Orphan Boy" is exquisite, if you can stop laughing long enough to listen.
The Choruses of Pirates and Police are both superb, producing big set pieces to bring the house down. The fortissimo "With cat-like tread" is so funny Rex Smith "corpses" at the end, whilst Pirates and Police take it in turns to dance and sing to the unwitting General's "Sighing softly to the river". Tony Azito bounds around the stage like animated india-rubber, whilst Kevin Kline moves from Cossack-style dance to balletic in a heartbeat.
For even ensemble performances have stars, and Kevin Kline simply reinvented Gilbert's Pirate King. Charmingly dim, elegantly clumsy, acrobatically accident-prone, he leaps, he slips, he falls, he trips; he repeatedly stabs himself with his sword, and is repeatedly surprised. With an English upper crust accent to fool Professor Higgins, he and George Rose even make the out-dated "orphan-often" gag work, and the various expressions of bewilderment on Mr Kline's face during this are alone worth the price of the DVD. His Pirate King is constantly baffled, yet invincibly optimistic. When he finds the orchestra between him and the doomed General, he impatiently shakes off Frederic's caution, to attempt a stride even his lanky 6'2" frame is never going to manage.
Special mention must be made of the Chapel Scene in Act 2. In a series of brilliantly played ensembles and recitatives, including subtly modified dialogue, the King and Ruth doom Frederic to a life of piracy until his 21st birthday - on 29 February 1940! But the King's smug triumph turns to (literally) head-banging fury - illustrating Alan Pakula's description of Kline as "one of the great clowns of the 20th Century" - at Frederic's revelation that the elderly General is "No Orphan". For almost fifteen minutes Ms Routledge, Mr Kline and Mr Smith hold us spellbound, in a perfect gem of musical theatre.
The finale sounds one false note, by pairing Kline with Routledge who, whilst superb, was still old enough to be his mother. A decision obviously driven by star status than artistic interpretation, it wastes the fun of the "abduction" scene in Act 1, and both actors seem uncomfortable with it. Kline's sexiest of Pirate Kings really demands a girlfriend, and, in this instance, the film made one of its few better dramatic decisions. Yet we forget even this misjudgement, as these absurd, lovable, heart-winning characters waltz off the stage and the spectators surge to their feet in roaring appreciation.
If you love glorious music, superb performances and an originality that survives the years; if you love the immediacy and vibrancy of live theatre, where the audience becomes another player; if you can forgive its technical quality for the sake of its artistic virtuosity and historic significance, then you will love this.
Be kind to it. Watch it in the evening, with the curtains drawn and the lights low; adjust the settings on your television; the recording is old, we are lucky to have it, but treat it gently and you will be richly rewarded. Without a time machine to take us back to that summer evening of 1980 in Central Park, (I wish!) this offers us the privilege of enjoying a unique, ground-breaking, and literally brilliant, theatrical event.