For half a century, the Durham Savoyards have devoted themselves to a quirky, singular mission: to honor the legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan, presenting the Victorian musical duo's 14 comic operettas in annual installments. This year, for the Savoyards' 50th anniversary season, they're bringing out the big dog, The Pirates of Penzance, the silly tale of Frederic, a well-born young man who is accidentally apprenticed to a band of soft-hearted pirates when his hard-of-hearing nurse mistakes the word "pilot" for "pirate."
Like Monty Python, this somewhat dated send-up of British high society works best when delivered with a straight face. W.S. Gilbert, who directed the original productions as well as writing their librettos, demanded his actors approach the material with an earnest gravity; humor, he wisely believed, came from a deadpan commitment to ludicrous songs and situations.
Gilbert was on to something. Derrick Ivey's nimbly staged but sometimes uneven production works best—and is gleefully funny—when the actors approach the material with gravitas. The leads, for the most part, achieve this task. Stuart Albert is hysterical as the sibilant Major-General Stanley, remaining excessively proper and British even when leaping about the stage in red footie pajamas. Kenny Cruz fully commits to his role as the wide-eyed but duty-bound Frederic, and Mary Elisabeth Hirsh showcases a beautiful voice (under Alan Riley Jones' musical direction) as Frederic's love interest, the earnest, bespectacled Mabel.
But the material often falls flat, and shows its age, when the actors play for laughs. The hamminess of the chorus and the broad gestural indications by Elizabeth Artemis Clark as Frederic's hypersexual nurse Ruth tend to work less well.
That said, for an amateur cast (which includes a pastry chef, a Latin teacher and a chemistry professor), the Savoyards widely succeed in their stated aim of bringing "melody, mirth and merriment" to the Triangle. Members of the ensemble were enjoying themselves immensely, even when their energy lagged or their voices were lost under the orchestra. For these folks, and for the audience members who leapt to their feet at the show's conclusion on Friday, the Savoyards' productions will continue to be a much-anticipated annual tradition.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The English speaking, and singing, world."