Kevin Burdette is featured in the Lyric Opera’s presentation of “Pirates of Penzance.” Cory Weaver
Kevin Burdette is featured in the Lyric Opera’s presentation of “Pirates of Penzance.” Cory Weaver

Performing Arts

Lyric Opera offers a traditional yet sly take on ‘The Pirates of Penzance’

BY LIBBY HANSSEN

Special to The Star

April 22, 2017 10:03 PM

“The Pirates of Penzance,” the familiar and beloved Gilbert & Sullivan classic operetta, completed the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s season, opening on Saturday to a robust and receptive audience in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre. The cast, directed by James Alexander, was well suited to deliver the precise lyrics and timeless melodies of the incomparable duo, which can too easily deflate without serious comedic skill and excellent voices.

This was a true-to-tradition rendition, with some touches of modernization, such as the stylized set designed by James Schuette and the escalating insinuation of insobriety, but in general the self-aware satire stayed comfortably in the realm of custom, while flagrantly mocking the genre’s more ludicrous tendencies all the while. That’s why we love it, and that’s why it endures. Schuette also designed the costumes, the pirates allowed a certain garish splendor in an otherwise firmly Victorian guise, with James Sale as lighting designer.

Hal France conducted the Kansas City Symphony, the overture a careful, straightforward introduction to the works’ themes. France kept the orchestra under the singers, mostly, and was able to keep everyone together when the daughters’ patter song threatened to pull apart in a few precarious moments.

Scottish-born Alexander designated a distinct British affectation for the characters’ accents, with excessively rolled “arrrrrs” while dropping in hints of other accents from time to time effectively. He also instructed a fair amount of expositing addressed to the audience, making us intimates to the characters’ dilemmas — and in on the joke.

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No one was more in on the joke than Kevin Burdette as the Pirate King, wholly transformed by wig and makeup designer Alison M. Hanks. As a physical comedian he was unmatched on stage, well and truly hilarious, and his voice richly sonorous.

His somewhat-insufferable apprentice, Frederic, was a sincere Jonathan Johnson, with a beautiful tenor, matched by the exquisite Anya Matanovic, whose sweet tone and effortless range underpinned an independent, firecracker personality. April Martin, Samantha Gossard and Laurel Weir, with the rest of the female chorus, were her sisters, delivering brief, but important, humorous moments.

A funny and versatile Margaret Gawrysiak was the ill-treated Ruth, Rhys Lloyd Talbot served as a swift and supportive Samuel, and the pirate crew was a sturdy bunch, reacting well to the principals’ reveals.

But what of Major-General Stanley? In this town it would seem sacrilege to cast anyone but Robert Gibby Brand and he gleefully played the part with veteran aplomb, the famous patter song met delivered on point, to a rousing crowd reaction.

The Sergeant of Police, played by Ben Wager, led the authentically clumsy Police Corps/Chorus, bumbling through unnecessarily effeminate (albeit traditional) movement, their droning delivery an unveiled wink at blind submission to authority. Choreographer Seth Hoff employed some standard musical theater tricks to the ensemble, some of which worked more effectively than others, such as the daughters’ across the stage scurry.

The witty, pointed lyrics and whistlable tunes make this a popular operetta, but for all the fun it is not an easy work to present. High comedic value and the vocal skills of the cast maintained its relevance, making for a successful, endearing performance.

Additional performances 7:30 p.m. April 26 and 28 and 2 p.m. April 29 and 30. Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $35.50-$210.50. 816-471-7344 or KCOpera.org.

If you go

Lyric Opera, “The Pirates of Penzance.” 7:30 p.m. April 26 and 28, 2 p.m. April 29-30. Muriel Kauffman Theatre. 816-471-7344. kcopera.org. $40.50-$210.50.