The Pirates of Penzance Shines at the Hobby Thanks to the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston

The oh so colorful Pirates of Penzance.
The oh so colorful Pirates of Penzance. Photo by Pin Lim

Everyone who has ever written a Broadway musical owes their fame and fortune to that dynamic British duo, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. From fin de siécle Austro-Hungarian caprices from Franz Lehar and the Czech-infused operettas from Rudolf Friml, through the brassy Gershwin brothers, the silky elegance of Cole Porter, the Americana of Irving Berlin, the sinuous pastiche from Kander and Ebb, the utter uniqueness of Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel any of them...and everything leads back to London's Savoy Theatre under the management of Richard D'Oyly Carte, who had the foresight to pair these two disparate talents. The union was inspired and changed the musical world.

For 25 years, from 1871 (Thespis) to 1896 (The Grand Duke) their comic operas ruled the showbiz waves. Their work, tweaking the noses of the upper crust and their inferiors, was immensely popular across the globe. The freshness, wit, inventiveness, and the snark was an instant moneymaker and a universal influence on all that came after.

The collaboration appeared as if from the head of Athena, full-blown and ready to conquer. The two could not have been more different. Gilbert was a martinet, a superb director – probably the first great theater director – and a sublime wit and wordsmith. If you think internal rhyme and clever lyrics began with Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, Frank Loesser, or Sondheim...think again. Gilbert started it all.

Sullivan wanted to be a serious composer – he was a serious composer – and throughout his career he continually dismissed his work in the musical theater as beneath him. Although renown for “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “The Lost Chord,” a grand opera Ivanhoe, and a Cello Concerto. he remained most famous and beloved for his work with Gilbert: H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, Yeomen of the Guards, Patience, and The Pirates of Penzance, playing only through next weekend at the Hobby Center by the acclaimed Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston. This misplaced fame galled him. But he carried on, cashed the checks, reveled in the popular success, and constantly grumbled under his breath.

Pirates is the duo's fifth musical, between the extraordinarily successful Pinafore and the almost-as-successful Patience, which skewered the aesthetic movement of James Whistler, August Swinburne, and Oscar Wilde. (Before the American run, wily promoter Carte sent Wilde on a nationwide tour to lecture on this new artistic movement, which, as he instinctively knew, only spurred popular interest in the musical.)

Pirates is more mundane, elemental. It skewers the police, cowardly pirates, and the military's incompetent upper echelon. In General Stanley's showstopping “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” he may know the “square of the hypotenuse...the croaking from the frogs of Aristophanes...Caractacus's uniform and Babylonic cuneiform,” but he hasn't a clue how to command an army. This is ur-Gilbert at his sublime best, multi-syllabic and sung fast and furious. Sullivan supplies an unending wash of melody throughout: the soft reverie of ingenue Mabel's “Poor Wandering One,” the martial ditty of “With Cat-like Tread,” and the copper's excuse, “When a Felon's Not Engaged in His Employment.”

The Society's production is immensely likable, full of ingenuity from director Nicole Kenley-Miller, choreographer Lauren Pastorek, and costume designers Shaun Heath and Mary Webber. Although the new sets were apotheosized at the curtain speech – to be donated later after the run to a worthy Houston ISD school – who would want these elementary cut-outs? Fortunately, the uninspired flats didn't obstruct the musical's charms, because the cast was so good we quickly forgot what they're playing in front of.

All have great voices, most suitable to the late-Victorian tunes and tongue-twisting patter songs. While not the prototypical picture book hero, tenor Brian Ross Yeakley sang ardently with pure precise diction. Julie Hoeltzel, whose bright spinto soprano knows no heights, lacked clear enunciation, which garbled her songs. Jana Ellsworth's Ruth, in love with young Frederic ever since she mistakenly apprenticed him to “a pirate” instead of “a pilot,” was a commanding comic second banana.

Of course, Dennis Arrowsmith, as Major General, has the hardest job of all. He has to sail through the patter song of all patter songs, “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” a tongue-twister unlike any other. Gilbert outdid himself and any other librettist with this beauty – a perpetual mobile of unending rhymes and convulsive phrases that circumnavigate through arcane ancient references. He maneuvered magnificently, all while in the character of fatuous, ineffectual army leader. Tremendous.

But the best performer had to be Sean Holshouser as the Pirate King, a role made famous and sexy by Tony-winner Kevin Klein in the 1981 Broadway revival and subsequent movie. Watch his expressive face and body movement. He eats up the stage, as does his silky baritone. He makes quite a pirate. Holshouser is finishing his college studies at University of Houston's Moore's School of Music. I predict a fine professional career ahead. Remember these words.

Artistic director Eiki Isomura from Opera in the Heights led the orchestra through its jaunty paces, never flagging in intensity, and allowing it to purr through the romances. The orchestra and Gilbert & Sullivan Chorus, under Joseph Rawley, were exemplary.

The only major criticism is the Society's insistence in projecting the English titles stage right, printed out like an annoying CNN news ticker. First, the dialogue is much too small to read – Gilbert's words need as much amplification as possible for its crispness and clever wit to shine. Even worse, the sentences are two beats behind what we hear from the stage. We can't keep up. It's so disconcerting. This must be fixed. Please, spend the money and project the titles above the stage like many opera houses throughout the world.

Other than that quibble, this Pirates is loads of fun and a marvelous entry into the extra-special world of Gilbert & Sullivan. Musical theater has never been better.

The Pirates of Penzance continues at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 23, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 29 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 30 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-315-2525. $39 - $84.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover