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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Pirates of Penzance
New York Shakespeare Festival 1980 and Marquee.tv   Spring 2023

Once upon a time a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta was a smash hit and Tony-winner on Broadway.

No, not in the Nineteenth Century, but in the 1980s, and it is now available online.

Of course this wasn't a traditional museum-piece D'Oyly Carte staging, but a spruced-up and perked up version, with Sullivan's music re-orchestrated with a Broadway sound, a cast of theatre and pop music stars, and exactly the right blend of reverence and irreverence that G&S deserve.

Starting life in the New York Shakespeare Festival's free Central Park theatre in the summer of 1980, director Wilford Leach's adaptation moved to Broadway the next season and ran for almost 800 performances.

That production was later the basis for a film, but this version was made for television during the Central Park run.

Quick reminder: in a typically silly Gilbert plot a troupe of hapless pirates they keep sympathising with their victims and can't bring themselves to rob them includes a simple and virtuous lad who was apprenticed to them as a boy and is happy to be freed from his indenture at age 21.

But someone remembers that he was born on a February 29, so that his 21st birthday is actually decades away.

That's no more flimsy than most of Gilbert's plots, and sufficient to support a collection of colourful characters and not only the chorus of pirates but a second one of galumphing virgins with accents more Canarsie than Cornwall, and a third of tap-dancing Keystone Kops.

Musical numbers range from sentimental ballads (Poor Wandering One) to high-speed patter songs ('This particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn't generally heard and if it is it doesn't matter')

Star of this production is Kevin Kline, delightfully over-the-top as the swashbuckling Pirate King. He is so eager to buckle swashes that if no one else will duel with him he'll cross swords with the baton-wielding orchestra conductor, and so much of a klutz that every time he draws his sword everyone onstage ducks.

The hapless apprentice and his beloved are played by pop stars of the period Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt.

Ronstadt looks pretty and does full justice to the romantic and sentimental songs, throwing in the occasional coloratura trill just for the fun of it. Smith proves a subtle and attractive comic, playing the lad as an amiable doofus perpetually a few steps behind in understanding what's going on.

Shakespearean veteran George Rose rightly stops the show with his triple-speed Major General's Song, Patricia Routledge is droll as a piratical camp follower, and eccentric dancer Tony Azito turns G&S's lugubrious police sergeant into a limbs-akimbo human marionette.

The fully professional video recording wavers only very occasionally, when the stage lighting overpowers the TV cameras, washing out the picture for a couple of seconds.

Beyond that, the only possible complaint about this production full of high spirits, high energy and more than a bit of high camp is that, as with almost everything else he's ever been in, we would have been happy with lots more of Kevin Kline.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Pirates of Penzance - NY Shakespeare Festival 1980  -2023
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