Kultur // 1994 // 145 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // October 27th, 2006
Dear Pirate King, I love your purple pants. Meet me tonight at the...
First things first: Gilbert and Sullivan purists, stop reading right now and step away from your monitor. Grab your D'Oyly Carte Opera CD and go pour yourself a nice Chardonnay. Pop in your copy of the Kevin Kline/Rex Smith/Linda Ronstadt film. For pity's sake, you can even watch The Pirate Movie. As wretched as it is, at least its bubblegum pop songs keep it a safe distance from G&S's original. But whatever you do, please understand that this disc...is not...for you.
Sweet mother of pearl, where do I even begin to describe what's wrong with this...thing? Gilbert and Sullivan's seaside operetta -- about a pirate apprentice who comes of age and decides to devote his life to eradicating every buccaneer on the seven seas, but then falls in love with the youngest daughter of a British modern Major-General, yadda yadda yadda -- has been drained of its quaint charm. In its place, producer/star Simon Gallaher has stuffed an entire Las Vegas revue's worth of gaudy costuming, garish lighting, synthesized music, beehive hairdos, acrobatics, and juvenile humor (says Major-General Stanley to his daughter after handing her a bouquet of flowers he has seemingly produced from his backside: "Go put these in a vase and wash your hands.").
Except for the lovely Helen Donaldson (who, as virginal heroine Mabel, sings like a nightingale but threatens to spin the show out of balance with a performance that's too straight and narrow to make any sense here) the cast serves up more ham than grandma on Easter Sunday. As the Pirate King, Jon English (a rock star in a past life, or so I read) repeatedly busts -- no not busts...prances -- through the fourth wall to chitchat with the audience, bare his chest for any and everyone, and, at one point, engage in a fencing match with the conductor. Then there's The Sergeant, who zips around on a unicycle after shooting ping pong balls out of his...well, I'd hate to give too much away. Besides, I haven't even mentioned the "Fabulous Singlettes," a trio of plus-size women who stand in for Major-General Stanley's bevy of beautiful daughters and offer three-part harmony in the swingin' style of a '60s girl group.
So you can understand where I'm coming from when I call this production an abomination -- an abomination, I say! -- of Gilbert and Sullivan's perennial mainstay, which, of course, was a frothy, ridiculous trifle in the first place.
But here's the catch: Man, was this ever FUN. There's a reason this thing was a huge smash in its native Australia (the show was taped at the renowned Lyric Theatre in Queensland in 1994). Essgee Entertainment's approach may be a radical departure from traditional performances, and it may, at first glance, seem to dumb down material that was dumbed down to begin with, but, truth be told, behind its winking façade is a show that is very true to the spirit of G&S's work. The score -- from "Pour, Oh Pour the Pirate Sherry" to "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain," from "Poor Wandering One" to "I Am the Very Model..." -- arrives intact. The synthesized pop arrangements are jarring, yes, but only until you get the hang of the show's so-kitschy-it's-cool rhythm. After that, they're downright catchy.
But what really buckles my swash is the amount of fun the performers are clearly having. It's infectious. And just when you think the energy level has gone through the roof, the cast rockets it into the stratosphere with an astonishingly unbridled 15-minute finale that derails the show in the best possible way. All the favorite songs get a reprise, those Fabulous Singlettes take the stage in cabaret gowns, and English literally swings over the audience and brings back two pretty ushers, whose unscripted, mortified reactions will leave you aching with laughter.
Good grief, I'm exhausted. Also conflicted.
How in the blazes can I recommend something like this and sleep at night? I mean, on the one hand I had a terrific time. It left me grinning from ear to ear, if for no other reason than its sheer audacity. It could likely become a part of my regular DVD rotation, though next time I watch it will be after a Fosters or three. On the other hand, I fear for my self respect -- not to mention my ego, which can withstand only so much abusive e-mail -- should I endorse it without at least a small note of caution.
To compromise, I'll give this disc a solid but conservative "B." Not too shabby for this rowdy bunch of buccaneers. Tally ho!
The Pirates of Penzance is presented in a full-frame format with Dolby stereo sound. No subtitles, no extras. As a sidenote, the packing puts the program at 115 minutes. It actually ran just over 145 minutes.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive