Review: ‘Pirates of Penzance’ isn’t best match for Atlanta Opera

For the first time in its 36-year history, the Atlanta Opera is presenting a Gilbert and Sullivan opera as part of its mainstage season. If this is a moment you’ve been waiting for all these years, then this colorful, fun-loving production of “The Pirates of Penzance” will likely hit the spot. Overall, however, the show lacks the focus, energy and charm that could help win over nonbelievers.

Set and costume designer James Schuette goes for an appropriately vivid, sunny and childlike atmosphere, giving the pirates the colorful, emblematic look of Lego pirates (the ship even has the cutesy proportions of a Lego pirate ship). The set pieces and backdrops were originally designed for a much smaller stage at the intimate 987-seat Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and they would normally be dwarfed on the vast, expansive stage of the 2,750-seat Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. But the problem is solved by building a new, smaller proscenium beneath the soaring one at the Atlanta venue. The solution is simple and clever, giving the show a fitting, self-consciously theatrical feel, a cozy old-fashioned Victorian snugness.

Overall, the music coming from the orchestra isn’t as energetic and exciting as it should be, which becomes an obstacle in bonding with the show. What’s missing is the barely suppressed boisterous energy that should underlie every scene. The overture, for instance, which should set the tone, seemed lethargic and uncommitted on opening night. It does have some soft, subtle moments, but here they sounded almost somber and plaintive.

The show’s director, Seán Curran, is a renowned choreographer, and unsurprisingly he has the cast moving and dancing far more than in a typical opera production. The show develops an old-school, razzmatazz, Broadway-or-bust, showbiz feel, which is a very different tone from anything the Atlanta Opera has put on stage before. The approach is appealing for the most part, and although everyone seems to be enjoying the fun, it’s also clear that cast and chorus aren’t all perfectly accustomed or at home with this style. Movement and humor can charm at times, and then things can just as easily take a turn and start to seem trite and hammy, even awkward and mechanical.

Tenor Matthew Newlin in the lead role of Frederic is able to give the role an amusing, Dudley Do-Right naivete and heroism with his handsome looks and sparklingly heroic, resounding tenor voice. Atlanta native Maureen McKay likewise gives classics like “Poor Wandering One” an enchanting, lilting beauty. Baritone Curt Olds doesn’t fail to please the crowd with a finely sung “Modern Major General,” though the pace isn’t particularly impressive and the joke of having the character search for a rhyme is so broadly played that it slows things down even more. Bass Kevin Burdette as a Jack Sparrow-like Pirate King makes the pirate’s life sound glorious indeed in the opening scene, and Act 2’s group number “With Cat-like Tread” becomes one of the highlights of the evening.

In some ways, it’s surprising that the Atlanta Opera has never produced a Gilbert and Sullivan work before, but it quickly becomes apparent that such productions don’t fit perfectly into a season alongside Puccini and Gounod. With operatic singers, a full orchestra and a lush score, it certainly can sound like an opera sometimes, but with added dance, hammy antics, spoken lines and lots of physical humor, it starts to feel like a Broadway show. Strangely, it doesn’t satisfy as an opera — there’s too much talking and the musical strategies of Verdi and Puccini are used primarily for facetious effect — and it doesn’t quite feel like a spectacular and flawlessly executed Broadway musical either.

Gilbert and Sullivan fans will undoubtedly get a kick out of the show and leave the theater humming the tunes. Nonbelievers may leave hoping it’s another 36 years before the Atlanta Opera tries this sort of thing again.

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