I’ve never seen a stage production of The Pirates of Penzance. Never wanted to really. What little I knew about it made it sound like the pirates are all silly people who flit around the stage singing not very pirate-like songs. But when the 1983 movie version (warning: that link is to a Region 2 DVD version, apparently it's not available in a US version) starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt was recently on cable, I shrugged my shoulders and gave it a look.
And I’m somewhat pleased to report that I was correct. The pirates are all silly people who flit around singing not very pirate-like songs. It’s still a lot of fun anyway, but that’s all due to the keystone cops. If this was a keystone cops blog, I’d have no hesitation about recommending the movie. Which is weird, because the inclusion of keystone cops in a pirate production was another reason I hadn’t been very excited about watching it. Why couldn’t they just have been eighteenth century soldiers?
Probably because it wouldn’t have been as funny that way. The keystone cops are a hoot. The best songs in the play are a hoot too. In other words, The Pirates of Penzance works pretty well when it’s making you laugh. Unfortunately, that’s not often enough.
The plot – if you’re as unfamiliar with it as I was – is about a young man named Frederic (Rex Smith) who was mistakenly apprenticed to pirates as a youth. His nursemaid Ruth (Angela Lansbury) was supposed to sign him up as a pilot’s apprentice, but she was hard of hearing. When he turns twenty-one though, his apprenticeship is up and he decides to leave the pirates. Not because they aren’t very good (which they aren’t), but because he’s somehow learned a sense of honor and duty under them and feels that they need to be wiped out. He claims to be conflicted about that because he likes them all individually, but despises them collectively. The play utterly fails on making that convincing. Or maybe it’s Rex Smith’s acting. It comes up a couple of times in the show, so I’ll say more about it later.
Frederic and Ruth go ashore where it becomes clear in an Ew! moment that Ruth wants to marry Frederic. The only thing she has going for her in making that happen is that Frederic has never seen another woman before, but that quickly turns against Ruth when Frederic sees a group of young, pretty sisters on shore. He meets them and falls in love with the youngest, Mabel (Linda Ronstadt).
Eventually, the pirates come to shore too where they decide to marry the sisters, with or without the sisters’ cooperation. At that point, their father the “modern Major General” shows up, sings a show-stopper, and fools the gullible pirates into leaving his family alone. Unfortunately, the pirates figure out that they’ve been duped and decide to attack the Major General’s home. Not only that, but they also find a loop-hole in Frederic’s contract and force him – thanks to his sense of honor – to continue working with them as they go up against the Major General and his goofy gang of keystone cops.
I think that a really talented actor could make Frederic an interesting character. The conflict he feels between his love for Mabel and his honor-bound duty to the pirates should have been heavy, dramatic stuff. Not that Pirates of Penzance should be a heavy, dramatic show, but that one element could’ve been a lot more convincing. As it is, Smith plays Frederic as wishy-washy. He revels in whichever side he happens to be on at the time. When he’s with Mabel, he’s all deeply in love with her. But when he’s with the pirates, he’s all smiling and swashbuckling and attacking cops with gusto. You can’t have it both ways, Fred.
That said, Smith probably wasn’t chosen for his acting ability. Assuming his voice wasn’t dubbed, the guy can sing. I mean, like holy cow can he sing. I also learned that “You’re No Good” isn’t the best showcase for Linda Ronstadt’s voice. She’s frickin amazing too. Kevin Kline was also surprisingly good, not only vocally, but also in the athletics his role as Pirate King called him to perform. The Pirate King also needs to ham it up and no one hams it up like Kevin Kline can.
No wait, I take that back. Tony Azito can.
I know, right? Tony who? But the Sergeant in charge of the cops steals the show. He’s incredibly limber and it’s hilarious to watch him deadpan his way through moves that would make the Ministry of Silly Walks proud. And that accompanied by the rousing singing of his fellow cops as they imitate trumpets in “When the Foeman Bares His Steel.”
So except for a couple of scenes that give Kline the opportunity to pose, strut, swordfight, swing from rigging, and otherwise buckle his swash, it doesn’t work very well as a pirate movie. But it’s still a blast and I’m glad I saw it. I won’t be buying it on DVD, but I will be getting the soundtrack.
Four out of five Pirate Kings.