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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Pirates of Penzance (1983)



Reviews and Comments

This Joseph Papp production of one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most celebrated operettas is a sheer delight from start to finish. It adapts the original play with almost rigid faithfulness -- save for a couple of added scenes which, believe it or not, improve it -- and the production is so carefree and fun, it may endear itself even to those who don't often find operettas stimulating.

And it all comes from the most unlikely of quarters. Few of the cast are known for their work in staged opera. Kevin Kline plays the Pirate King, and he shows off his stunning, powerful voice and agility in addition to his quirky sense of humor. Linda Ronstadt plays Mabel, dressed up as Bo Peep, whose voice can sound just as good on the ultra high notes as Kline's can on the low ones. Rex Smith plays Frederic, Angela Lansbury plays Ruth, George Rose plays the Major-General, and the hilariously flexible Tony Azito plays the Sergeant.

The songs are performed competently and confidently, and they're not easy songs. Arthur Sullivan's majestic score is alternately beautiful and rapid, and it's not easy to sing either. Thankfully, W. S. Gilbert's relentlessly clever lyrics are preserved in all their glory. One of the aforementioned added scenes is the song It Really Doesn't Matter, lifted out of another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Ruddigore, with only the odd change of names in the lyrics to make the song fit in this story. It's a blazingly fast song, a highlight of the show, and inserted seamlessly into the Pirates of Penzance script. (In fact, the spoken line following the song, "What's the MATTER??", seeming to have been written with the preceding song in mind, is actually part of the Pirates of Penzance script and, there, did not have the added significance that it does here.)

An excerpt of another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta comes into play in a more obvious way, so I won't mention it here. But except for these two scenes, no words were added that weren't part of Gilbert's original script. The opening scene, an establishing shot of Penzance one early morning, features ladies and gentlemen leaving church, chatting to each other on their way out -- but they mumble their greetings and pleasantries. But while the words and music are essentially untouched, the choreographers and set designers had a field day. This production is stuffed to the brim with ingenious little moments of physical humor. It's so rich, in fact, that you'll notice something new with every viewing. (It took me upwards of six or seven viewings, for example, before I noticed that the beam the Pirate King bonks his head into in the middle of an early song had "Watch Your Head" written on it in small print.)

This film is the best filmed Gilbert and Sullivan production I've ever seen, and it's arguably of their best play. The music is wonderful, the lyrics clever and complex, and the humor makes it hysterically funny. As such, it's one of the finest and certainly most under-recognized musicals of all time.

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