The Pirates of Penzance
directed by Wilford Leach
Universal Pictures, 1983

Science fiction has discovered Gilbert and Sullivan. There is a silly scene in Star Trek: Insurrection where Worf, Picard and Data sing a song from HMS Pinafore. In an episode of Babylon 5, Marcus drives Dr. Franklin crazy by repeatedly singing "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." Worf says that he does not know Gilbert and Sullivan because he has not yet had time to meet all the new crew members. His response is probably close to what you'd get if you asked the average person on the street what they thought of the duo.

I personally am only familiar with their operetta The Pirates of Penzance, and that only because of this movie, which I first saw on The Movie Channel when I was a teenager, so I can't really say whether or not all of Gilbert and Sullivan's works are as silly as this.

The story concerns a young man who was apprenticed as a pirate by accident when he was 8 years old. Bound by a stern sense of duty, he completes the apprenticeship, but when he turns 21, he leaves the pirates behind to seek an honest life. But such is his sense of duty that he feels honor bound to hunt down his erstwhile companions, despite the fact that individually, he looks on them "with affection unspeakable." Upon reaching shore, he comes across the daughters of Major-General Stanley and falls instantly in love with Mabel, and she with him. When the pirates also come ashore, they decide to wed the numerous Stanley daughters until the Major-General appears and tells them that he is an orphan, their one weakness -- they will not prey on orphans, for they are orphans themselves and "know what it is like."

Act Two takes place on the Stanley manor grounds and in the town of Penzance. Major-General Stanley is overcome with remorse because he lied to the Pirate King about being an orphan. Frederick reassures him that had he not, the pirates would have wed his "large family on the spot." Frederick, with a company of constables from the town, is about to leave on a mission to find the pirates. However, the Pirate King and Ruth, Frederick's former nurse who has now joined the pirates (it's a long story), seek him out to explain to him that by a singular twist of fate, he is technically still a pirate-apprentice. Duty-bound, he once more joins the pirates. He and Mabel swear true love until 1940, when he will be released from his indenture, about 60 years from the present time. However, it all works out happily in the end.

This is one of the best musical adaptations I've ever seen. Sure, The Sound of Music is a wonderful movie and so is The Wizard of Oz, but for sheer energy and silliness, nothing beats The Pirates of Penzance. It is apparent that the actors loved the material that they were working with and were having loads of fun making the movie.

Kevin Kline is the Pirate King, and I had no idea that he could sing. Guess what? He's marvelous. He's the perfect Pirate King, blending a swaggering sneer with tiny touches of clumsiness that make delicious comedy.

He is matched by Rex Smith as Frederick. The only other thing I have ever seen Rex Smith in is Street Hawk, a not-too-awfully-bad ex-cop adventure series a la Knight Rider, with a motorcycle instead of a talking car. As Frederick, he is both gentle and arrogant, confident in his good looks and sure that he can win any and all of General Stanley's daughters.

Linda Ronstadt plays Mabel. She has a very sweet voice and projects an air of young innocence, mainly with her eyes and posture. However, when called for, she really belts out the lyrics.

The only casting I didn't really like was Angela Lansbury as Ruth. She played well, except ... I don't like her singing. Her voice is annoying and screechy and reminds me of some of the worst sopranos in a church choir. In the "It Really Doesn't Matter" song, she was barely understandable. I much prefer the voice of Estelle Parsons, who played the part on Broadway.

I was surprised to learn that Kevin Kline, Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt were reprising roles they played on Broadway, as were George Rose as Major-General Stanley and Tony Azito as The Sergeant (of the Penzance Constables).

The movie, in fact, is styled in such a way as to be reminiscent of a stage show. There is no effort made to make the scenery look realistic, although it is certainly more elaborate than what you might find on a stage. At one point, Frederick steps into a pool of water and it is obviously an artfully concealed wading pool lined in blue. Rather than detracting from the movie, though, the sets add to its charm.

This is a wonderful movie to watch if you're feeling depressed for any reason; you can't help but laugh at the antics, especially those of Kevin Kline (I can't say enough about how marvelous he was as the Pirate King). Go ye forth and rent this movie.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]

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