It's silly to expect D'Oyly Carte-level Gilbert and Sullivan in a casual dinner theater setting. Still, there's no reason that the production shouldn't have dramatic and musical integrity.
Alas and alack, such is not the case with "The Pirates of Penzance" at the Harlequin Dinner Playhouse in Costa Mesa. The cast is enthusiastic, the singing is generally passable, the minimal production values are serviceable. So what's missing?
At last Saturday night's performance, no one in the cast seemed to have a clue as to characterization or dramatic interplay. The Frederic of Ted Jost and Mabel of Ann Winkowski looked pretty enough, but not for a minute did they seem to be in love; not for an instant did Frederic appear fazed by the life-altering events befalling him. Bart Williams' Major-General Stanley certainly looked the part, but never did he seem at all interested in the flurry of action around him.
Craig Schaefer contents himself with directing his performers in entrances, exits and an overabundance of TV sitcom sight gags. Here is Gilbert and Sullivan as seen by the cast of "Family Ties": Frederic does a needless Elvis bump-and-grind for Stanley's daughters; Alex Daniels' Pirate King repeatedly gives us a wide-eyed expression of pain as the sword is drawn across his hand.
To make matters worse, this two-act work is elongated to three acts: Intermission I is for dessert, Intermission II for signing the credit card voucher. By the time the "third act" begins, interest in the show has flagged considerably.
The musicianship, too, is hit and miss. Led capably by Ann Reid from an electronic keyboard (augmented more often than not by prerecorded orchestral accompaniments and more than a little choral "sweetening"), the singers cope reasonably well with their vocal chores.
On Saturday, Winkowski displayed the most control, though her projection was often unsteady. At least she managed the coloratura flights in "Poor Wandering One." Jost revealed a trained voice, but one limited in range. Williams, unfortunately, failed miserably in the famous patter song "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." Thankfully, this number is considerably edited.
The rest of the cast proved better actors than singers, notably Daniels, who showed some comedic gifts, particularly in his continual pratfalls. Bruce Winant as the Sergeant impressed with his dancing skills--and little else. Mary Gillis was cute, if not particularly sympathetic, as Ruth. Blessedly, all but Williams resisted the urge to affect an English accent.
The assorted pirates (who doubled as police--sometimes without bothering to remove their cheap-looking 5 o'clock shadows) run around a lot but appear as if they'd spent as much time at sea as Sir Joseph Porter, "Pinafore's" desk-bound "ruler of the Queen's navy."
Performances continue into February.