'Pirates of Penzance' cast finds treasure


-- Who: Knoxville Opera

-- When: 2:30 p.m. today

-- Where: Tennessee Theatre

-- Tickets and info: www.knoxvilleopera.com

Satirizing a satire can be risky business, especially when the original is about social mores mostly abandoned and faded from general consciousness, such as Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance," which Knoxville Opera is staging at the Tennessee Theatre this weekend.

Playing it 90 percent straight (maybe), instead of the totally campy approach, with most of the contemporary twists being more visual and stylistic may work best.

At least it does in this production (90 percent at least). When you have two natural hams on stage, keeping the reins even under that much control has to be considered a success.

At least the opening-night audience seemed to think so.

Written with the viewpoint of taking on Victorian-era indentured servitude and social rectitude, both of which are now lost on contemporary audiences, the "Pirates" whack at the establishment doesn't carry the bite it did in the late 19th century.

But when you put "Pirates" in the hands of a gifted director like Carroll Freeman, who also plays the Major General, what is lost is more than compensated with comedy no one can miss.

With the Major General having more daughters than a Victorian orphanage, a hat that looks like it once belonged to a cockatoo, and his red, crested uniform, which drapes like silk pajamas (perhaps explaining so many offspring), Freeman's comic Major General comes close to stealing the show.

Offsetting that is soprano Rachel Anne Moore, who capably sings the role of the General's daughter, Mabel, and tenor Marc Schreiner, who sings the indentured pirate, Frederic, both of whom do their best to play it straight.

Their duet in the chapel yard, in Act II, was certainly the loveliest singing of the evening.

But when you add Corinne Stevens' Ruth, who put young Frederic in the service of a pirate because she misunderstood her instructions to contract Frederic to a pilot, and David Keith's Pirate King, the balance shifts sway from seriousness.

Surrounded by classically trained opera singers and an experienced opera chorus, who play his shipmates, Keith holds his own vocally and sometimes by sheer presence alone.

Then when you add Keith's inability to resist reference to things "orange" to Freeman's skills at carrying them out with both subtle and obvious visual jokes, "Penzance" offers something for everyone.

Jock fans and music fans alike.

Harold Duckett is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.

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