When one thinks about different genres in the world of theater, one tends to think that comedy and opera would not be put together into one piece. Contrary to what we know, there are a few pieces of theatre that do combine the two, and I recently had the opportunity to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance at the New York City Center as part of their new “MasterVoices” series.
The Pirates of Penzance is a comedy operetta during the time of Queen Victoria’s reign incorporating a diverse slew of characters. Complete with sword-fighting, constant stumbles and jokes, and a seemingly-doomed romance, the entire show is carried through song, with few and sparsely spaced forms of dialogue between the characters. The operetta was replete with a star-studded cast, including opera star Deborah Voigt, Hunter Parrish from the television show “Weeds” and star of Broadway’s Spring Awakening and Godspell, a full-fledged choir and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s playing all the music.
The minute I walked into the theatre with my mother, I felt and sensed a different energy than other venues I had attended. The interior architecture of the building was in the style of ancient buildings in the Middle East. With intricate detail, two balconies, a mezzanine and huge orchestra section, you could feel that only special performances and concerts should be performed in this space. Boasting a seat capacity of about 2,300 seats, you could immediately tell that the architects expected many people to fill every seat every night, and luckily for the New York City Center, they have been able to achieve that since opening the theater in the 1940s.
While waiting for the show to start, I was very intrigued that the majority of the audience members were tourists. I was able to pick up bits and pieces of Spanish, French and even Hebrew being spoken, amongst other languages that I didn’t recognize. It made me pause in my thoughts — how did the tourists even hear about the New York City Center? I was born and raised in New York, and yet, until this performance, I had no idea that the venue even existed! Seeing all these people showed me that the New York City Center had the ability to appeal to a vast audience. It also reinforced for me the notion that the world of theater can be (and almost certainly is) an international genre, with universal appeal. Not everyone needs to speak the same language in order to enjoy the same piece, which I found to be incredible.
As someone who was unaware of the premise of the operetta, I went in with an open mind, excited to see such an acclaimed piece of theater. I had heard of the show from my parents and other friends who had seen various productions and I was told that “you will either love it or you will walk out wondering what happened.” The moment the lights went down and the curtain rose, I knew that any previous thought I had was to be “thrown out the window.” Onstage, not only was the set minimalistic, but there were about a hundred people seated on stage with librettos, ready to sing with the principle actors.
From the time Hunter Parrish entered onstage (more like carried onto the stage) to perform the former pirate and main character, Frederic, up until the closing curtain, the entire audience was in stitches from laughing so hard. Parrish engaged and entertained the audience all while jumping around the entire theater, a feat that I’m sure was difficult for him to achieve. At one point, he even jumped into the orchestra pit and proceeded to play the cymbals in a juvenile manner as part of the orchestra, making everyone laugh while the scene onstage went on, having absolutely nothing to do with him.
The cast and choir performed the seamlessly-intertwined songs magnificently, making the audience clap numerous times. At the finale, there was a long standing ovation. People could be heard singing the lyrics during the intermission (this caused me to have the line “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” stuck in my head for a good few hours). My favorite song of the night was “Oh! False One, You Have Deceived Me,” performed between Hunter Parrish and Deborah Voigt. The emotional music completely contradicted the hysterical lyrics, making the song even better and more memorable.
After two and a half hours of straight laughter (not to mention a fifteen minute intermission) and pure enjoyment, I will readily recommend The Pirates of Penzance to anyone who has the opportunity to see it. Also, if you ever have the chance to meet Hunter Parrish (as I did after the performance), he is a sweetheart and is totally willing to take pictures.