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The Pirates of Penzance

By Sam Sutherland

When New York theatrical producer Joseph Papp decided to bring Gilbert and Sullivan to Broadway, he added typically broad, bold strokes to make their singular operetta format meaningful to 1980s audiences. In The Pirates of Penzance, Papp had a story that offered a mixture of potential action and comedy that was less arcane than other G&S chestnuts, which Papp's production underlined by playing up its antic conflict between its hapless, titular pirates and the citizens of Penzance, the Cornish town targeted for plunder. Adding to the new production's mainstream allure was the theatrical debut for erstwhile country-rock siren Linda Ronstadt as the virginal Mabel, along with a plum role for another putative pop heartthrob, Rex Smith, as the "good" pirate, Frederic.

Naturally, such amendments piqued complaints from self-appointed G&S purists, for whom the duo's original satirical edge and theatrical innovation were obscured (if not ossified) by their canon's patina of respectability. Happily, for the rest of us, Papp's cheeky revisions are generally on the money, and this 1983 film version preserves them with unusual fidelity. Instead of opening up his production with location shooting or intricate editing, director Wilford Leach savors the artifice of its stage sets and hokey, colorful costuming, celebrating the genre's proud theatrical legacy.

The cast, meanwhile, tears into the farcical plot with elan, led by Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, a role perfect for his skill at lampooning masculine bravado (not to mention his underexposed, generally strong singing). Broadway veteran George Rose proves the very model of the modern Major-General Stanley, and Angela Lansbury, added to the film's cast for marquee value, again shows her mettle as the ditzy maid, Ruth. Ronstadt justifies Papp's gamble, having trained rigorously to meet Sullivan's acrobatic melodies--indeed, this project marked her commitment to grow beyond rock, confirmed with her subsequent exploration of classic pop with arranger-conductor Nelson Riddle.


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Buy this VHS movie from! (Click here!)DVD unavailableSoundtrack unavailable at - try eBay (see links below)Rated PGNot on an American Film Institute 100 list

Director: Wilford Leach

Stars: Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury, Linda Ronstadt, George Rose, Rex Smith, Tony Azito

Released: August 17, 1983

Availability: VHS

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