Troy King in The Pirates of Penzance. Photo: Carolyn Brown • @cebrownphoto

The Pirates of Penzance

Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W.S. Sullivan
Dougc Scholz-Carlson, stage director
Emily Senturia, conductor

A review by  Jeanne-Marie Rogers

Entire contents are copyright © 2024 by Jeanne-Marie Rogers. All rights reserved.

The Pirates of Penzance, by the famed duo of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, debuted in 1879 following the great success of their H.M.S. Pinafore. Frustrated by the “pirated” versions of Pinafore that flourished in the United States, they devised a plan to premiere the new comic opera in New York before opening in their native England to secure an international copyright.  

The plot of Pirates is absurd and hilarious. Frederic is apprenticed to the Pirate King because his nursemaid Ruth misheard the word “pilot” as “pirate.” He encounters a “bevy of beautiful maidens” and falls in love at first sight with the boldest of them, Mabel.  The women turn out to be the wards of the self-important Major-General Stanley, and the pirates resolve to marry them all, although the Major-General objects to having pirates as sons-in-law. Treacherous trios ensue, where it is revealed that Frederic was born on Leap Day, and, as he was apprenticed to the pirates until his 21st birthday, he is duty-bound to remain with the pirates for 63 more years. Meanwhile, the police have been summoned to deal with the pirates although they don’t seem up to the task.  Some love duets and pirate refrains bring us to a happy conclusion.

The Kentucky Opera’s production got off to a sprightly start with their GRAMMY-winning partners, the Louisville Orchestra, in fine form under the baton of Emily Senturia. The magnificent pirate ship set, which transforms into a rocky coastline and then a ruined chapel, was designed by Robert Little for the Utah Festival Opera. The colorful dresses and dashing monochrome pirate costumes by Holly Jenkins Evans were created for Kentucky Opera’s 2008 production of Pirates. Clever rewrites brought Ruth and Frederic’s relationship issues into modern perspective and piled on the local references to great effect in the Major-General’s famous song. A Gilbert and Sullivan purist might find the direction of Doug Scholz-Carlson a bit overstuffed with sight gags and breaking the fourth wall, but all these bits of business had the audience in stitches. The laughter and applause covered a few funny lines and important transitions, and hectic tempos in the second act rushed past some of the jokes. Here’s hoping that the pacing gets worked out for the remainder of the run. 

Casting a comic opera like Pirates can be tricky. While there is plenty of beautiful music to sing, the performers must also convey a lot of dialogue with Victorian-era jokes, and embody the physical comedy inherent in the script. Kentucky native Troy Cook was outstanding in the role of Major-General Stanley with a droll appearance, nimble moves, and impeccable diction. As the young lovers Frederic and Mabel, Martin Bakari and Studio Artist Brennan Blankenship were charming and sang with robust tones (it is an opera, after all). Pirate King Craig Irvin successfully negotiated the line between fine singing and character acting to great effect. As his henchpersons, Studio Artist Erik Nordstrom brought a smooth baritone to Samuel’s incidental solos, and University of Louisville faculty member Katherine Calcamuggio-Donner’s comic delivery was tops, although she seemed slightly uncomfortable with Ruth’s vocal lines. 

Both Irvin and Calcamuggio-Donner made the most out of being a good foot taller than Frederic. Studio Artist Joshua Thomas let his rich bass notes shine while acting appropriately bemused as the Sergeant of Police. Longtime choristers Tara Durnil and Rebekah Hardin and Studio Artist Georgia Belmont hammed it up as Mabel’s sisters. Jane Welch brought the house down in her cameo appearance as Queen Victoria. The entire chorus dazzled vocally and visually as they pranced through occasionally awkward traffic patterns. There are four more (first-rate!) opportunities to catch this delightful production at the Brown Theatre. Whether you are a Gilbert and Sullivan fan or a first-timer, you WILL be amused! 

The Pirates of Penzance

February 16, 22, & 24 @ 8:00 pm
February 18 @ 2:00 pm
February 20 @ 1:30 pm

Kentucky Opera
The Brown Theatre
315 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202

Jeanne-Marie Rogers (she/her) is a Louisville native who has been active in the arts community as an instrumentalist, vocalist, and conductor for many years. She currently serves as Minister of Music at St. Marks United Church of Christ in New Albany and is an oboist and assistant conductor with the Community Music Alliance Orchestra. She has sung with the Louisville Chorus, Voces Novae, and Kentucky Opera (including the KO’s 2008 production of Pirates), and has appeared with several local theatre companies. She founded the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Louisville in 2011 and is pleased to present the fourth annual (if going by leap years) Pirates Sing-a-long on February 29, 2024. Jeanne-Marie graduated from Youth Performing Arts School and holds music degrees from Northwestern University and SBTS.