The Pirates of Penzance

It’s easy to see why this 1983 film version of the famed Joseph Papp production of the 1879 Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera has its fans. As the absurdly honorable orphan hero, Frederic, former teen idol Rex Smith is surprisingly funny and perfectly cast; rock star turned all-around diva Linda Ronstadt warbles tunefully as the lovely Mabel; the great Angela Lansbury as nursemaid-turned-pirate Ruth is, if not quite at a hilarious career high, close enough; and, in the role that made him a star, Kevin Kline is the ideal Pirate King, milking every ounce of cheerful self-regard out of a professional blackguard who is pretty much unable to harm a fly. However, there are big problems. Director Wilfred Leach had the right idea in filming this ultra-silly musical on a lavish, completely non-realistic set, but his staging lacks taste. He often pushes the comedy several steps too far, even resorting to speeding up the film at one point in an ill-advised homage to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops. The coup de gras, however, is actually delivered by something that’s very much of this film’s day — its synthesizer driven musical adaptation. The music of Arthur Sullivan is often on the borderline between huge listenability and complete preciousness. The insanely chirpy synths employed by conductor William Elliot and further denatured by Linda Ronstadt’s producer, Peter Asher, destroys the charm of Sullivan’s melodies, for me anyhow. Since “The Pirates of Penzance” is pretty much wall to wall music, that’s a problem.

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