In case you haven’t felt the loss, I should tell you that Gilbert & Sullivan hasn’t been performed “often” in Boston in recent years – so a production of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE anywhere is reason to celebrate. You only have to travel to Dedham to see the revival (of both the production and the producer, Fiddlehead Theatre) It’s a semi-professional collaboration with seasoned singers in the leads and a chorus of community theater regulars as pirates, police and pretty maidens.
If you’re not a Savoyard, you may have come to G&S via the movie, a comic tour de force starring Kevin Kline as the loveable, dotty Pirate King. Most productions I’ve seen since the movie have borrowed Kline’s “simpleminded” shenanigans. Since all art is “borrowed” to some degree, one might as well steal from the best. The Fiddlehead production does, but curiously, not for the King’s first appearance and his signature song! Better Far to Live and Die [a Pirate King] is sung, alas, without shtick. But once the talented Samuel Perwin embraces the fact that his character is a bit dense, he gallops away with the show. (I just would have preferred to see him with a running start.)
“Take heart,” as Mabel would say. After a shaky first scene (with pirates bumping into each other to grab their sherry) the Fiddlehead production gels and the company of eighteen manage to coexist on the postage stamp stage without looking trapped. They even dance on the head of a pin in Kristin Kuznezov’s clever, telegraphed choreography. The singing is solid and Brendan Shapiro’s orchestra is a delight, right down to Renee Hagelberg’s impressive trumpet contributions.
My favorite number, the exquisite Hail, Poetry is indeed a divine emollient in a mostly winning production. Director Margaret Fofonoff has first rate comic actors as the Major General (Ray O’Hare), the Police Sergeant (David Schrag) and the piratical maid of all work (Jo Jo Karlin). These accomplished comedians know how to get a laugh without mugging to the audience.
As the lovers, Michael S. Dunavant and Heather Karwowski sing beautifully (although Karwowski’s powerful “operatic” coloratura obscures Gilbert’s lyrics some of the time). Fiddlehead also gets remarkable work from Omar Najmi as the King’s first mate and from Melanie Leinbach, Margaret Plouffe and Maya Murphy as three of the Major General’s countless daughters. Experience it for Sullivan’s gorgeous melodies and for the wittiest libretto and lyrics Gilbert ever wrote.