When you take in a Genesius Guild production at Rock Island’s Lincoln Park – when you take in any theatrical performance outdoors – you’re at the mercy of the weather, and every once in a while the elements and the production itself will align in a way that feels like perfection.
At last Saturday’s opening-night performance of The Pirates of Penzance, the hues of the sunset were so vibrant, and the night air so refreshing, that the strains of Gilbert & Sullivan’s music seemed not just right but inevitable. (Genesius Guild could have been performing Lear, and Pirates would still be playing in our heads.) This isn’t to say that the production itself isn’t quite fine; Geneisus Guild’s season-opener would be delightful even in an indoor venue. But I can imagine few more entertaining ways to spend a cool summer night than by sitting outside, listening to a gifted orchestra, and watching several topnotch performers enact Gilbert & Sullivan’s lilting comic operetta. Saturday’s production was a complete treat, and it occurred on the kind of blissfully serene, late-June evening that modern outdoor theatre was nearly created for.
Aside from The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance is probably Gilbert & Sullivan’s most beloved, audience-friendly work, a graceful blend of mistaken identity, love, and devotion to the queen. Its Byzantine wordplay, comic panache, and tuneful score make the show one of the consistent pleasures in musical theatre; for a work that’s nearly 150 years old, Pirates remains remarkably fresh. (Audiences who think of Gilbert & Sullivan’s works as cornball might not realize that the English team practically invented this particular breed of corn.) Conductor/musical director John Pfautz and stage director Christopher Thomas don’t try for anything revelatory in this Opera @ Augustana incarnation, nor do they need to. They let Gilbert & Sullivan’s exquisite music carry the day, and trust their cast to pull it off with conviction and joy.
Most impressive is Christopher Scott, who plays The Pirate King with a beautiful baritone and suave comic timing. Scott, who was also the best thing about Augustana’s springtime opera The Merry Widow, is extremely likeable; his character might not be on-stage as often as you’d want, but his every appearance makes you smile, and his rendition of “I Am the Pirate King” is marvelous. Nearly matching him is Jonathan Schrader as Major General Stanley, whose phrasing of his signature number, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” shows the effect of a natural comic on an already funny song; Schrader delivers that glorious, tongue-twisting solo with geniality and ease.
Throughout the Gilbert & Sullivan oeuvre, the duo’s romantic figures are almost invariably less interesting than their comedic sidekicks, so it’s to the immense credit of Michael Callahan and Rochelle Eisenga-Buske that they make their blushing ingénues so amusingly stylized. Callahan projects earnestness but is broad enough to score laughs simultaneously, and Eisenga-Buske possesses a divine soprano, which is great news for an audience, and a willingness to make Mabel come off as a bit of a fool, which is even better news.
There are, in fact, only two errors in casting, but they’re really odd ones that distract from the on-stage action. The use of one of the ensemble’s women as a figurative – and center-stage – statue in Act II is a head-scratcher; the actress portraying her remains still so well that you begin paying undue attention to the acting stunt. And among the show’s chorus of pirates, one of the men – not specified in the program – is such a spot-on dead-ringer for Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow that I, for one, spent most of the production waiting for him to emerge as the central character.
These, though, are quibbles. The Pirates of Penzance is a fine achievement, made even better by its outdoor venue, which often adds to the production in the subtlest of ways; as darkness falls, the colors in the show’s costumes – designed by Angela Hand – appear to change with the lighting, like Princess Aurora’s dress at the conclusion of Disney’s Cinderella. That’s magic. And that’s a summer night spent at Genesius Guild’s Pirates of Penzance.
The Pirates of Penzance will be performed at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 25, and Sunday, June 26.