The University’s Musical Theatre Department’s production of “Pirates of Penzance” can be categorized as a pleasant surprise. Full of intense choreography, immense vocal skill and colorful costumes, the production was brimming with excitement. The stage was alive with pirates, nervous generals and a slew of intelligent daughters. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my Sunday afternoon anywhere besides Cornwall, England with this hodgepodge of characters.
“Pirates of Penzance,” with music by Arthur Sullivan and a libretto by W.S. Gilbert, has never been my favorite theatrical endeavor. In fact, most of Gilbert and Sullivan's work is not my favorite — I find the work dated and overdone. When I heard that the Musical Theatre Department was doing it this year, I rolled my eyes. It’s marketability to University donors makes it a fiscally reasonable choice for University productions. However, artistically, its story doesn’t strike me as much of a theatrical challenge for the students involved.
However, under the direction of The School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s faculty Vincent J. Cardinal, this version of “Pirates” was unlike anything I could have anticipated from the 18th century comic opera. Cardinal’s vision brought a newfound sense of liveliness and flare to the production. It was “Pirates,” but on steroids.
The choreography by Cassie Abate contributed greatly to the high production quality of this opera. Abate used the number of talented dancers at her disposal to her advantage. For less experienced choreographers, the sheer amount of bodies on stage could be a recipe for disaster as it opens up opportunities for creating a cluttered and messy image. However, Abate’s detailed and intricate choreography work allowed for fabulously orchestrated movements between performers. There was constantly something to catch your eye, be it a flip, a kick or a tap dance (yes, a break-out tap dance number in “Pirates” — talk about surprises!). Thanks to Abate and her assistant choreographer Maya Alwan, SMTD senior and musical theatre major, the lack of an interesting story line was made up for by the incredible dancing.
There was not a single actor on stage who did not fully commit to their role. The talent of each performer proved why the University of Michigan is known for its stellar Musical Theatre program. With a cast so incredibly talented, it is difficult to pick out performances that shine above the rest. However, the performances from SMTD senior musical theatre majors Commodore C. Primous III and Nina White are certainly worthy of note.
Primous played Pirate King, a comedic villain of sorts, who ruled over the other pirates in the show. Primous had a physicality that many actors would kill for, not to mention his lively facial expressions and comedic timing. If someone had told me he played this role eight times a week on Broadway, I wouldn’t bat an eye. It seemed to be made for him.
White was fiery as Ruth — an older woman who is abandoned by her love, Frederic. Similar to Primous, the playfulness White incorporated in her rendition of Ruth made for some great comedic bits. She proved to be a fantastic character actor and fully committed to her role as a 45-year-old nanny.
If someone were to ask you to see an 18th century comedic opera, you might politely decline. However, sometimes expectations don’t coincide with reality. The University’s production of “Pirates of Penzance” was one full of delightfully good surprises. Get your tickets for the second weekend now, while you still have the chance.