Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Pirates of Penzance

It always amuses me that, as much as I may be a fairly standard-issue nerd, the phenomenon did not arise spontaneously with the introduction of science fiction and isn't limited to that particular sort of fantastic literature. Take the Sherlockian scholars, for instance, who from the time Arthur Conan Doyle first presented the world with A Study in Scarlet played "The Great Game" of trying to reconcile the various Holmes stories with each other and the real world, which was harder than it may sound because Doyle really didn't care: Watson's war wound would move from left to right, shoulder to hip, and his wife would refer to him as "James" even though the character's name was established as "John H. Watson" from the beginning. Comic book continuity nitpickers have nothing on the fans of nineteenth-century detective fiction who would come up with something akin to reasonable explanations for these inconsistencies.

Gilbert & Sullivan nerds have been around nearly as long, and I got to experience a theater full of them Monday night. They're charming folks, even if I didn't understand the least bit of the minutiae they were discussing. Of course, I tend to like fans of anything, and don't trust folks who don't have something outside their own lives that they obsess over.

I am pretty ignorant of the G&S oeuvre, though. I think most of my familiarity with Pirates comes from bits Isaac Asimov dropped into a Black Widowers mystery and somehow picking up parts of a couple songs by cultural osmosis (so, I would occasionally grumble something about someone being the very model of a modern major general after a long list of useless accomplishments). One thing I always wondered was why the plot device of Asimov's story never actually happened. If I remember it correctly, the Black Widowers' guest mentioned that he was considering investing in a movie version of The Pirates of Penzance, which the producers would produce as an animated cartoon. As much as this film version of the play was very rough, it certainly seems like something that a good cel-animation crew could make into a fun movie, especially since that would give them a little more license to change the locations up a bit.

The Pirates of Penzance

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 June 2009 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (Pirates!)

That I am relatively unschooled in Gilbert & Sullivan's work probably marks me as culturally illiterate by some measures, especially since, despite my general wariness where musical theater is concerned, it is full of things I like: Slapstick comedy, rapid-fire dialogue, wordplay, pirates. Watching this version of The Pirates of Penzance has not, I fear, left me terribly anxious to see more, although I suspect most of my problems are with the adaptation, rather than the source material.

Pirates tells the story of Frederic (Rex Smith), a lad who was apprenticed to a Pirate King (Kevin Kline) at the age of eight. Possessed of a strong sense of duty, he could be no less than the best pirate he could until turning twenty-one, at which point he feels duty-bound to purge the sea of them. As soon as he reaches shore, he encounters the eight daughters of Major General Stanley (George Rose), and is instantly smitten with one, Mabel (Linda Ronstadt) - it's fast, but considering that the only woman he's seen in his time aboard ship is his middle-aged nanny Ruth (Angela Lansbury).

It is plainly evident that this film was adapted from a stage production. Indeed, the painted backdrops sometimes appear to come from a high-school play. The sets are a little more elaborate than might be feasible on stage, but while director Wilford Leach and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe do shoot from different perspectives and even move the camera around, it retains the sort of location-locking that seems natural with plays but is the opposite of how we expect films to behave: Rather than follow characters or cut from one location to another, the film generally stays in one place and has people come and go. Leach, the cast, and editor Anne V. Coates also have a devil of a time translating stage performances to film - the close-ups kind of kill it. There's no need to play to the balconies when a close-up puts the entire audience in the front row, and the cuts to a tighter shot sometimes seem to come about because if there wasn't a cut, it would seem too obvious that all the action was happening in a stage-sized-and-shaped area. They also highlight how something that's funny as a background gag can become less so when shoved into the foreground.

Then there are the bits which I presume come from the original source material rather than Leach's screenplay which didn't work for me, and I don't necessarily think it's because we're less likely to make allowances for how close everyone is together (even when they're supposed to be hidden from each other!) on screen than on stage. There were a number of times, especially in the first half, when I felt like screaming "hang on, you were just saying and doing the exact opposite thirty seconds ago, and nothing has happened to change that!" A lot of that can be explained away by the fact that most of the characters in the movie are, well, morons of one sort or another. There are also times when the characters seem to break the fourth wall, but not quite, and it's not clear to us neophytes whether this is something Leach added for contemporary audiences or whether it was in the original operetta. It doesn't quite work, either way.

Pirates is no complete failure, though. It's hung around for over a hundred years because the songs are catchy and the jokes funny, and come at the audience at a rapid enough pace that when one dies, it doesn't have the opportunity to linger long as a stinking corpse before the next one comes along. There may not be a particularly clever person in the entire cast of characters, but there's also not a mean-spirited one, either. The twists in the story are amusing rather than taxing. There's a ton of well-executed slapstick, especially toward the end, when Leach lets his cast run, jump, and generally buckle their swashes.

That cast is mostly taken from the play's Broadway run, and the sole exception - Angela Lansbury - is not someone whose presence in a musical is likely to be faulted. Rex Smith is nicely embodies the combined naivete and virility of Frederic, and is charming even when he is also very stupid. Linda Ronstadt is lovely as Mabel, although she's so good at hitting the high notes that I sometimes couldn't understand what she is singing (but, it's opera; you listen for the sound as much as for the words). George Rose plays the old dodderer amusingly, and Tony Azito is a slapstick delight as the head of the cowardly local constabulary, who moves as if he's more suited to the Ministry of Silly Walks than the police force. Then there's Kevin Kline, in one of his first major film roles, already showing the combination of earnest charm and go-for-broke comic instincts that would make him one of Hollywood's best comedic leading men.

Pirates wound up having a checkered release history; theaters shut it out because Universal experimented with a simultaneous television airing, and the version available on DVD is a more straightforward recording of the stage play. In some ways, that may be for the best; this version often seems to be neither film not play, and being caught in between does it few favors.

Also at HBS.

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