Is Gilbert & Sullivan an acquired taste? As much as any opera is, yes. However, the rhythms and cadences, the dense and witty lyrics, melodic repetition by design, the wry political satire and the daffy plots definitely distinguish the work of two English gentlemen who have contributed such strong flavors to the canon.
So if we stand down from the pejorative implication of the term (“sauerkraut is an ‘acquired taste’ ”), we can say that Gilbert & Sullivan requires a precise sense of performance and a willing audience to make the dish a success.
James Rocco’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” which opened Thursday at Ordway Center, satisfies the broad outlines of our expectations with excellent singers and a respectful staging.
In some regards, it might be a little too respectful. There are moments to be spoofed in the story of a young man, Frederic, who completes his apprenticeship with a band of friendly pirates on the coast of Cornwall and goes off to seek a wife and a noble life — only to get caught in a cheeky plot twist. Rocco keeps the production’s winking sense of humor in check, though, and seems willing to let the piece itself do the work. That is not a bad instinct but this sturdy old libretto with its insistent music has more flexibility than you might imagine.
As the Pirate King, Brandon O’Neill certainly gets the spirit of fun going early with his swashbuckling anthem “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die.” O’Neill leaps and bounds, and carries in his eyes the knowledge that this is all for laughs — most notably when he soars through the vocal cadenzas and parries swordplay with orchestra conductor Steve Tyler.
Kersten Rodau, portraying Frederic’s maid, Ruth, sings lustily and uses her natural comic chops to fill up a role that stirs the plot. Gary Briggle aerates Major-General Stanley, retaining the slightly stiff British posture but opening up the old man’s personality. He was articulate, precise and funny Thursday with “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”
It is in the larger scenes, played out on Tom Struge’s rather cheap-looking cut-out set design, where Rocco might have found more juice. The police, led by the able Dieter Bierbrauer, are straitlaced Mounties rather than the bumbling British bobbies they have been played for in other productions. Dane Stokinger stands out among the pirates, who otherwise blend together in a lump. Rocco’s quite basic choreography never attempts anything close to a surprise, although the sword fights, staged by Aaron Preusse, show some flair.
Frederic and Mabel — the woman with whom he falls in love — are the romantic core of this show. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Anne Eisendrath were given these roles for two reasons: they look great and sing gorgeously. Their second-act ballads approach the highest levels of art.
However, the duo does not grab us by the lapels and demand that we love them. Eisendrath in particular could use more charisma. Herdlicka has a bit more bounce but the role was written for a bland, handsome young chap who can sing like an oriole. He fits the bill.
All this — a great singing cast of 29 and a 19-piece orchestra under Tyler’s direction — are spot on with the musical demands of this witty opera (“Hail Poetry” almost raises shivers). You will carry the tunes into the night and you will smile at the quirky experience of Gilbert & Sullivan. It is a smile that is easy to acquire.